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new zealand: the south island

as our ferry crawled sluggishly along the final stretch of water to picton, we peered out at other ferries and larger cruises – one with the vaguely familiar-sounding name of ‘london’ painted on her aft bow – and beyond, into the low, thick clouds that concealed the allegedly beautiful scenery. it was back there somewhere, but alas, we wouldn’t be seeing much of it for the next couple of days.

the initial drive was nice enough, and we were given the general impression of the would-be spectacular views when the clouds lifted for long enough for us to catch a glimpse of the odd sound. at that night’s campsite, the constant drizzle and futile effort to fit tent-pegs into a compacted gravel surface made for dampened spirits and bent tent-pegs.

the next day, the rain at least had subsided - even if the cloud-cover hadn’t – and we embarked upon a modest section of the queen charlotte track, which would take us to a lookout point reportedly providing panoramic views of the vicinity. we walked for an hour or so, but found the weather increasingly oppressive and the views decreasingly impressive, such was the visibility, and after more than an hour of sliding around on a slope in an effort to find a glimpse of some beautiful grey clouds through the thick foliage, we turned back.

as though to acknowledge and agree with our decision, little intermittent drops of rain started falling gently and refreshingly upon our faces. then - as though to mock and humiliate us pointedly for neglecting to bring any of our waterproof garments on this walk - much larger, less intermittent globules of rain began to pelt us on all sides, and didn’t relent for the entirety of our slippery, squelchy return to the car. we drove on in search for sunnier climes.

we stopped in havelock to havealook around (which took all of 15 seconds) and decided to have a spot of lunch to reward ourselves for eventually coaxing out the sun after a very dreary past couple of days. sal finally had the chance to savour some green-lipped mussels, which had been her quarry since as far back as the coromandel two weeks before, and i finally sated my caffeine fix, which had been my quarry for about half an hour.

it was in nelson, a little further along our route, that we realised that autumn was arriving. we wandered around the golden-leaved streets of the pretty town and paid a brief visit to the lord of the rings-esque church before heading on to abel tasman national park, where we were hoping to do a bit of kayaking the next morning.

with the wind and rain behind us and the sun above, we carried on to motueka, which would be our starting-point for the morrow´s kayaking. as captain of our two-man vessel, my duty was to push the kayak out to sea after each impromptu secluded-beach stop, chasing after her once seaborne, and then scrambling into my seat at the back with as much dignity as is possible to maintain during such a task. i was also in control of our rudder, which was actually more challenging than it sounds.

as lackey, sally was in charge of charting our course across the seas in terms of nautical mileage, announcing stringray-sightings (of which there were two) and making sure we didn’t leave our apple cores on the beach.

we made good our offing and set forth on a course that would take us to a number of isolated beaches up the mainland coast, before crossing a choppy strait that separated the golden bays from a small rocky island that was supposed to be home to hundreds of seals but which in fact had none. nonetheless, there was a beautiful sandy beach tucked away from view of the mainland coast, and here we enjoyed half our supply of cheese sandwiches, with boatswain sally making sure we didn’t discard our applecores wantonly.

we took to the waters like some well-oiled machine – but with fleshy people in place of metal cogs and wheels, you understand. we ran a tight ship, but although we ultimately managed to avoid the dreaded capsizing, we weren’t without our problems. aside from the foot-pedals that dictate direction, the rudder could be further controlled by two cords that deploy and retract it, as the case may be. i would occasionally forget to deploy the rudder after returning to the water, having previously retracted it upon arrival on-shore so as to avoid having it drag in the sand and hindering our docking time. with the rudder out of the water, we could only go in unadventurous straight lines. this meant that we could be plowing uncontrollably towards razor-sharp rocks, and the rudder would be wagging at the back redundantly like the tail of a happy puppy.

the weather in this part of the south island was a very comfortable 25 degrees in the day, but suddenly plummeted to something decidedly lower in the evenings. by this point, the increasingly colder nights had taken their toll and placed it in the back of my throat in the form of a rather unpalatable yellowy-green goo. we thusly came to the inevitable conclusion that we would have to buy more bedding.

from the abel tasman national park our destination was the fox glacier, via a night’s stopover just outside murchison. our campsite of choice this time was free, and handily situated by the side of the main interstate highway. i like the idea of driving for a few hours, pulling over at the side of the road, setting up camp, and then driving a few hours more the next day. it puts emphasis on the driving, promotes it to being an outing in itself, rather than a mere mode of transportation. it soon became clear tha in the north island, one undertakes the long journey to reach the destination, whereas in the south island, one makes up a destination because it’s the sights along the way that are the bits most worth seeing.

the next morning’s drive along the west coast was spectacular. we elected to take route 6, which is a longer but more scenic drive. we followed it inland for a bit, before finding ourselves thrust up against the sea along its course. we were pinned up against the crashing waves of the tasman sea for a good few miles, before spiraling up along some dramatic cliff faces, and then plunging back down towards the coast, along a road which appeared to be the only human spoil in an otherwise magnificently untouched forest.

we stopped at the warehouse in greymouth to buy a duvet set with two pillows. we couldn’t be bothering with the luxury of duvet or pillow covers if we only needed them for a couple more weeks, which meant that from this point on we were sleeping in what appeared to be a fluffy white cloud.

we chose to scale fox glacier over franz joseph, as the former has about one tenth the number of visitors of the latter, and it’s also a trifle larger. we spent the day slipping and crunching around on that huge chunk of inexorable, slow-moving ice, peering into insidious-looking crevasses, gawking at gleaming blue caverns and sliding around ice-tunnels, until we had to make our own inexorable return to fox glacier town’s cbd (a pub, a village shop and a bp station).

it was during this time that i began to realise that the further south one goes in this country, the better it gets. until, i suppose, one goes beyond the country’s boundaries and passes the south pole before suddenly heading north again, where it presumably gets worse in some way. is that not an odd notion, to head south for so long, on a steady course, only to find that eventually one is heading north again? the same can’t be said for east and west.

we stayed at a stunningly-located campsite on the edge of lake wanaka. the wind was entirely unforgiving, and didn’t relent in the slightest for the duration of our time there. this meant that all of the usual noises one hears quite clearly whilst camping are either muffled or drowned out completely, which made for some interesting episodes in which we spent a good deal of time in stunned silence in pitch black, trying to decide whether it was an animal or a human that was scraping against our tent. we weren’t sure which we would have preferred.

my favourite town in new zealand (aside from christchurch, of course), is the tiny settlement of arrowtown. the place has something of a provincial, parochial charm to it, and in autumn it shines, with fiery orange, red and yellow-leaved trees lining the one street that makes up arrowtown’s minute core. it’s the perfect antithesis to queenstown, only a few kilometers beyond, and the most extreme thing one can do here is have a good pie – which sally and i did with aplomb.

we came to queenstown, the extreme sports capital of the world, and embarked on a leisurely 90-minute boat tour of lake wakitipu. i felt that going against the grain in this manner was my own way of being ‘extreme’. additionally, my interpretation of extremism bought me 90 minutes for my $25, rather than 9 seconds for $250, which was the going rate elsewhere.

we garnered some interesting facts during the boat trip, the most interesting of which being that lake wakatipu boasts new zealand’s purist water – so pure, in fact, that electricity cannot be conducted through it. i also found it interesting to note that most of the foliage in the queenstown area (and probably a lot of new zealand) was introduced by european settlers, and that prior to settlement, the remarkables (queenstown’s neighbouring mountain range) and other hills were left more or less bereft of any flora after the scourge of the most recent ice age 14,000 years ago. all of the beautiful forests on the hills, then, are a manmade thing, and one has only to look up to the remarkables to see how the landscape would look in its natural state.

the receptionist at our campsite of choice in queenstown gave us a strange look when we told her that we intended to camp rather than use one of the cabins. it was a mere 2 degrees that night, which explained the receptionist’s earlier strange look - but our trusty cumulus duvet burrow kept us warm, like some sort of hibernating angel-rodents.

on our way out of queenstown we had to wait in probably the only traffic jam i’ve ever experienced in new zealand. a friendly lady in a high-visibility jacket came around the queuing cars, handing out sweets, and explaining that they were detonating explosives on the cliffs that loom over the roads, in an attempt to induce a few controlled landslides, rather than have them happen naturally later at the risk of motorists’ lives. she explained conversationally that she was disappointed to have been posted on this side of the cliff this time, because usually she gets to see the explosions happen herself.

we visited milford sound as a daytrip from te anau. we had been trying to decide for the past couple of days – such was the level of disagreement between testimonials - whether it would be better to visit on a fine day or on a rainy day. it of course transpired that we had no choice in the matter, and the weather was particularly soggy. it transpired also that this resulted in an excellent experience.

the drive up to milford was almost better than the boat trip on the sound itself. the amount of rainfall both from previous days and on the day-proper meant that the looming cliffs through which we passed were absolutely drenched in cascading white spume. i have never seen so many waterfalls – not even in iguazu. the blackness of the rocks from which the water fell, coupled with the brilliantness of the falling water and the grey sky above made for a beautifully monochromatic scene, not dissimilar to that which sally and i had enjoyed on the fjords of norway two years ago.

we reached the small port at milford and spent a few moments investigating which boat was smallest and which would have the least number of passengers. we settled for a small red and white number, with no more than 10 other passengers aboard – and, most importantly, it had free tea and coffee.

the boat trip was on a par with that of norway in terms of dramatics, but where norway was so tranquil and still that it seemed as though we were traversing a giant mirror, milford was particularly rough and choppy, as though that same giant mirror had been smashed to pieces and put in a tumble-drier. there was so much spray and cloud that we didn’t get to see mitre peak – the jewel of milford sound – but it didn’t matter. we were able to experience the raw power of water as it fell about us, swept under our feet and sprayed and spouted in our faces. i was drenched to the sort of stage where you’re so soaked that you don’t really care anymore.

dunedin is a city steeped in history and steep gradients. we visited the steepest road in the world, which is at a gradient of 19 degrees. i was disappointed by this figure upon reading, but it really is much steeper than it looks both written down and from viewing at the bottom of the street. we gasped our way to the top, took some pictures, and i then decided that it would have been rude not to drive up and down it in the car. it was actually a less pleasant experience than i had expected, for the fear of the imminent failure of the brakes did rather plague the moment.

we perused the city´s art gallery at our leisure, and visited the excellent ‘your face here’ exhibition at the otago museum. the latter imparts all sorts of interesting facts about human and animal faces, making it slightly more accessible to non-face-interested people by allowing patrons to take photographs of themselves on the computer system and see their faces transformed in all manner of ways relevant to the various topics of the exhibition.

we drove out to the otago peninsula – a mini version of christchurch’s banks peninsula, in my head at least – and visited larnach castle, which claims to be the only castle in new zealand. lovely though the building may have been, it really was more a lovely house than a castle, in my book. we had a stroll around the well-kept grounds and petted the friendly chocolate-coloured dog with the less friendly owner, and left with a rekindled urge to visit warwick and york.

our penultimate stop in new zealand was mount cook. the drive there was among the more dramatic of our south island drives, and we arrived at the foot of the alps to set up our camp just in time for the sentinel mountains to glow a slightly more friendly pinkish colour.

the next day we embarked on the short hike to the foot of new zealand’s highest peak, and for perhaps the first time on a walk in this country, we weren’t alone. we’d managed to synchronize our walk perfectly with that of a school trip of something around 60 children. we managed to get ahead of the pack with a bit of effort, but as we stopped at the end of the trail to admire the snowy peak and the amazing chunks of blue ice that stood defiantly in the large body of water at the foot of mount cook, the school trip caught us up.

it only irked me slightly that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the magnificent mountain in peace. i appreciate that it’s not my mountain, after all, and that a school trip has to happen some time or another. what really bothered me was that the entire group of school children immediately began throwing stones at the beautiful ice remains in an attempt to chip off edges here and there and, presumably, to reduce the ice to the same comparatively unremarkable body of water that encompassed it.

i found something troubling about the fact that these kids had chosen to destroy rather than to admire. it surprised me how concerned i was about this, actually, and i found myself growing more and more compelled to say something to the band of seemingly unaware teachers with every stone that was hurled. i couldn’t even decide if it was my responsibility to say something to the teachers or not. i’m of course aware that i’m not responsible for the school children, but what about natural beauty? is that not something in which all of us should take a bit of pride, and with it a bit of responsibility to protect it?

i decided not to say anything, which turned out to be the right decision when one of the teachers stood up and shouted to the children that they were forbidden from throwing stones and that anyone caught doing so again would be in trouble. but this peturbed me even more, as i wondered whether the teacher had reprimanded her students for the good of their own safety, or for that of something that in my opinion is worth cherishing. the fact that this country appears to pride itself on its green ethics and caring attitude towards its unspoilt nature made this matter all the more pertinent in my mind.

mount cook to christchurch was our last essential long drive, and as we joined the unwaveringly straight, flat roads, it became clear that we were entering canterbury. it’s quite amusing to look at a road map of new zealand, navigating the roads wiggling and winding here and there, and then to get to the page covering canterbury to see how uniformly grid-like the road system is.

for the past 6 weeks we’ve been travelling around new zealand – myself in the driver’s seat, with sally by my side reading the directions. it’s been a small part of a larger trip through central and south america – one in which we’ve both been gradually uncovering new things and places that for us were previously in the dark.

this all changed in an instant as soon as we reached the rakaia gorge in canterbury. we turned a corner, rolled down a hill, and then the landscape opened up in front of us, and the rakaia river, brilliantly blue as ever, came into view. and in that instant, i suddenly knew my surroundings, and from that point it completely changed my perspective of our trip. i was no longer in this distantly familiar new zealand which hasn’t quite been what i remembered. i was back in the new zealand that i´d known so intimately before, and it suddenly felt warm and homely again as i took a few moments to recollect the time i’d spent in these places before – a sunny afternoon’s drive here, a photograph taken there. i enjoyed trying to make my way back to addington without the aid of a map (which, i add, i was successful in doing).

how often does one get the opportunity to experience something such as this? to spend a year in a far away land, totally isolated from what i’d previously known, wondering in the interim if this part of my life unconfirmed by other friends or family from home had actually ever taken place, suddenly returning to find that it’s all here to explore once again – it’s been very strange indeed.

it was strange driving around the outer fringes of christchurch´s city centre at night. the city centre is like a ghost town – lighting is extremely limited, and the streets are deserted. addington is still going strong, though, only metres away, and i enjoyed strolling down the high street, stopping in at old haunts such as the miller pub – which has become a lot more popular since the earthquake, as the city centre has for now moved out into the suburbs (it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out when the city centre is reopened) – and the chinese fish and chip shop. the miserable lady is still working there, and their menu and pricing remains unchanged – but their unintentionally quirky collection of 80s copies of celebrity magazines was alas absent. i used to enjoy reading about tom cruise and nicole kidman’s budding courtship. my old house on poulson street is still standing too, and i took a bit of time to notice the new paint job and to wonder whether the insides have changed.

we were very lucky once again to have a friend put us up in town. this time it was davey, a fellow englishman who i knew previously as the conductor of addington brass. he had been away for most of the time that we were there, but his dog maxa was there to keep us company (or vice versa). it was funny having her follow me around at every turn, her tail wagging unsurely as she looked up at me, wondering if the (vegetarian) sausage sandwiches i was making would result in a subsequent meal for her (they wouldn’t).

from christchurch, sally and i did two final daytrips: one to arthur’s pass, and one to akaroa. arthur’s pass was as stunning as ever, the constantly-changing scenery being the main attraction of that route to the west coast. we didn’t see any kea, alas, but it was a fine daytrip nonetheless.

the drive along the summit road outside akaroa was excellent. it was another fine day, but the hills of the banks peninsula were capped with thick, extremely fast-moving cloud that would continually spill over the hill tops and over the road along which we were driving. this made for quite a memorable, national geographic-style drive which, to my recollection, took place in slow-motion.

we spent our last afternoon in new zealand doing what is and probably will always be my favourite drive in the world, and which was my favourite pastime when i lived here before – the drive along the crest of the port hills. the views are unbeatable up there, with christchurch and the silhouetted southern alps one on side and the inexhaustible pacific on the other. it feels like driving on top of the world.

and so it was that our fairly comprehensive visit of new zealand ended. it’s been a complete change of pace from the slow and exhausting business of backpacking and, though enjoyable, this respite has left me eager to be taking to the road once again with a progressively heavier bag slung on my back.

this visit was of course different to my time here before, 7 years ago - but i hadn’t realised quite how different it would be. indeed, i had given it little thought, such was my rapture with the preceding adventures. this time i’ve seen as much of the country as possible in the time available to me, as opposed to staying in one place, and this in turn has meant that, aside from the few social reunions (which were at the forefront of this visit’s highlights), this has been quite a lonely 6 weeks. it’s been lonely both in comparison to my last stay in new zealand and when compared to the rest of this trip as a whole. i feel that it’s the people that make a place what it is, and that, since the vast majority of the people who made new zealand what it was for me before weren’t there this time around, i have felt strangely detached from the country i knew so well before.

let me not overlook that this visit has also had the great disadvantage of having to follow on from somewhere that to me is much more exotic and novel - in the form of latin america - and at a time when i feel as though i’ve seen so many amazing sights in succession that i simply can’t be awe-struck any longer. as sally pointed out, we know that what we’re looking at is objectively spectacular in one way or another, but the feeling of awe is dulled, distant, removed. we’ve pondered together as to whether doing this trip in reverse order or whether simply not seeing quite so many incredible things in a row would remedy this issue, but as to the result of such a proposal, i can only speculate. i have been plotting to get my 2nd of march back, though, so repeating this trip or one similar to it in retrograde would appear to cater for both of these demands.

new zealand: the north island

it has been rather surreal being reacquainted with new zealand over the past 3 weeks, and some of the differences between here and south america have been more startling than i’d anticipated. the people, the culture, the architecture, and even the complete absence of stray dogs is completely different to the world to which i was becoming increasingly accustomed.

just wandering around a supermarket, for example, is overwhelming. everything is presented with such care - the vegetables and fish are gently sprayed with a constant supply of water so as to maintain their glossy appearance, and the fruit is stacked as though arranged by someone with ocd. and i´ve never seen such beautifully stacked carrots.

as i had been told to anticipate, i have been finding that i notice every little fragment of mundane day-to-day conversation that comes with being back in an english-speaking country. i overheard a man snapping at his wife ‘you’ve got a bag like a big bucket, so you can’t find a damned thing’, whilst his wife looked for her mobile so that they could call the complaints hotline on the back of a can of deodorant. it’s also made me realise how boring a lot of my conversations must be to overhear.

other novelties we’ve been enjoying since our arrival in the antipodes have included the plethora of free, well-signposted public toilets, members of the general public returning smiles and even saying hello, and the vast array of road signs, telling drivers to visit this café and that museum, to stop at this picnic spot in 400 metres on the left or that lookout point 200 metres on the right, to ‘merge like a zip’ with the impending traffic or that ‘if you drink then drive, you’re a bloody idiot’. i like that the nz police campaigns use the word ‘bloody’.

all of this information makes driving a bit more interesting. i think they could do more with the idea, though, and tell a story over the course of 150km, with each sentence being spread across 5 or so signs in digestible, bite-size chunks of rich, creamery butter. i think i may have become sidetracked during that last sentence, as there is a half-hour infomercial on kitchen knives on tv at the moment – which brings me on to my next point.

this abundance of road signs, written in the imperative, ties in with the larger feeling of being constantly targeted for some sort of sale at all times. the radio shouts at you to buy 4 pieces of chicken for 20.99, while the television beckons you to head down to 'the warehouse', where everyone gets a bargain, apparently (and it turns out it’s true – i’ve been). i suppose this isn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary, but after latin america - where either i wasn’t being sold anything or i was just blissfully unaware – it feels something of a constant bombardment.

the camping facilities here have been better than a lot of the amenities in the youth hostels that we were using in south america. we’ve been staying in a combination of department of conservation campsites, which are often in the middle of nowhere (but very cheap), family campsites, which have common rooms akin to that of a family living room, and camping in the spare space at backpackers’ accommodation, which has no associated comments at this juncture.

owen has kindly lent us his mum’s old car – a 1995 peugeot 306 with an antisocially enthusiastic exhaust – and we’ve been lucky enough to be able to find someone who’s prepared to drive it back up to auckland for us (thereby foregoing the need for us to drive back to auckland ourselves, and then back to christchurch to get to australia). the wily old girl exudes something of a bestial rage when it comes to accelerating, braking, steering or, well, anything – but i think i’m beginning to tame her, and our fantastically good fortune in obtaining a car for such minimal cost overrides its otherwise irritating characteristics, such as the doors not staying open by themselves, the ac coming on automatically on its own terms without us noticing, and the clutch appearing only to go all the way up or all the way down and nothing in between.

i was thrown in the deep end somewhat by having to drive across auckland to owen’s place at 7 in the morning after a 13-hour flight and a 4-month absence from driving. but i’m back in the swing of driving again now, and driving over 600 miles in the first 4 days also helped. i also think that i’m pretty much used to new zealand roads again now (that is, the ‘give way to the right when turning’ rule, and the complete lack of cars anywhere, ever - the latter rule thereby making the former rule redundant). the new zealand road network really is driving heaven for anyone who likes a good road trip.

sally and i have invested in our second property together in preparation for the ensuing 6 weeks of camping. sally named our new home ‘64a school lane’, and we moved in shortly after, with a celebratory plastic cup of tea to get us started. we stocked up on food supplies – most of which being of the trusty tinned-can variety – and were ready to be on our way.

in our first few days we explored the northern-most stretch of the north island, during which time we could feasibly have been the only people in the world. we stopped at kawakawa to christen the very pretty hundertwasser toilets, created by austrian ecoartist albert hundertwasser. here, the ornate hotchpotch of tile-work and windows created from recycled green bottles made for what was quite probably the most pleasant jimmy of my life.

after kawakawa we drove a while longer, taking in the rolling green hills and odd-looking trees before stopping in kerikeri for a spot of lunch. we remarked how everything is much dearer here than we had expected, and that free wifi is very difficult to find. in fact, free internet is only to be found in mcdonald’s (where hotmail is blocked) and the town libraries. clearly, we’d been spoilt in south america in that regard.

we left kerikeri with satisfied tums and headed further north to the karikari peninsula, wondering along the way if the place names would become a little more adventurous. they certainly did, and after visiting a staircase carved out of the trunk of a colossal kauri tree (enticingly signposted), we reached cape reinga, right at the northern tip of the north island, where the tasman sea and pacific ocean collide.

new zealand had certainly been the land of the long white cloud up to this point, providing distinctly long and cloudy times for our first few days, and testing my recently-made assertion that ‘visiting a place purely for the weather is rubbish’. but as we turned to head back south from new zealand’s northernmost strip of land, the sun made a welcome return, and i confidently renewed my earlier assertion.

our last stop before heading back to auckland was an unintentional one – we only went there because we passed a road sign directing us to ‘GIANT SAND DUNES 400M ON THE RIGHT’ and felt that really we had no say in the matter. the dunes certainly were giant, and i swear i nearly stopped living as i clambered pathetically up one of the most smug-looking ones. after we crossed over the first dune, the trees behind us and the ocean in front of us became completely obscured by massive sand dunes bordering us on all sides. the wind here was ferocious enough as it was, without the skin-removing wall of flying sand punishing us too. but WITH the skin-removing wall of flying sand, it was, well, even more ferocious.

after the most thorough, natural exfoliation of my life so far, we began our trudge back to the car. we passed a couple of german chaps who had taken to bodyboards on the steep dunes, and i smiled and nodded in a ‘i-approve-of-your-sandboarding-antics-but-not-enough-to-think-of-some-sort-of-comment’ fashion. one of the men asked if i wanted to have a go, and moments later i found myself hurtling face-first down a 50-metre (at a guess) sand dune into a wall of, well, more sand. sally assures me that i wasn’t going particularly fast, but i´m fairly sure i reached lightspeed at one point. perhaps it just seemed faster to me because my nose was practically touching the sand on the way down.

on the drive back down to civilisation we stopped at ninety mile beach. this is truly one of the most remarkable beaches i’ve ever seen – and i´ve been to bournemouth. the beach is flat and unending (it’s easy to see how it got its name, even if it’s more like 90 kilometres than miles) – so flat, in fact, that the beach disappears into hazy nothingness whether you’re looking up or down its width, and the waves crash into themselves countless times before reaching the beach and then finally receding. and the noise! that sound of ceaseless, crashing waves; one after the other, for 90 kilometres up the coast – it’s something else.

we returned to the bay of islands - which were too rainy to be enjoyed properly during our prior visit – and stayed in the small (population: circa 1000) town of paihia, with the hopes of doing some sort of boat tour of the bay and its constituent islands. the next day we went on a boat trip of the bay, with the hopes of seeing some sort of dolphins somersaulting out of the water, often into one another, either for our enjoyment or theirs (with it being difficult to tell at times), and then to see a big hole in an even bigger rock. fortuitously, this was exactly what happened on our boat trip.

the dolphins were beyond impressive, and i couldn’t believe – despite having seen countless hollywood scenes of dolphins swimming in front of boats – how fast they were able to swim under the bow of our huge, inconspicuous, yellow and black catamaran. it’s all fun to them. they remind me of the hoards of cubans who had nothing to do but loiter in the streets and outside shops for the amusement of tourists – except, of course, that the cubans wouldn´t leap out of the water or swim in front of ships.

we got to see the big hole in the big rock, but alas the tides were much too choppy for us to be able to pass through it, which is what the other 70% of the daily boat trips do. we stopped at one of the islands shortly after circling the holy holey rock, and went on a short walk up a big green hill dotted with fluffy sheep. we also visited the tiny (population: circa 600) town of russell - across the bay from paihia - with its sickeningly pretty white picket fences, white wooden shack-houses and children's storybook-like policeman's house (which housed the only policeman in town and therefore accounted for the entire russell constabulary.

the idea of a large city in new zealand is something of a foreign concept to me, so it was with a mote of skepticism that i stepped off the birkenhead ferry and onto the platform of auckland’s city centre for the first time. for a while i was surprised, and spent the first half hour or so walking into people whilst my neck was craned up at the many impressive, modern skyscrapers. but as the neckache wore off, so did my surprise, and i left the city feeling that its illusion of grandeur was as transparent as the glass towers that encompass it. perhaps it was after perusing the city’s continuous sprawl from the sky tower that i was able to see that the downtown part of the city didn’t actually stretch so far. but even amidst the tall buildings, it felt as though there’s not much there and that there’s not a lot going on. sort of like a big, clumsy giant.

the skytower, then, is like a giant needle in a haystack of impressively large but generally uninteresting buildings and, in my opinion, it’s therefore the saving grace of the city. from here, one can gaze 328 metres over the city’s suburban expanse as it sprawls about the 50 volcanoes that make up its land mass, and wonder whether companies such as mcdonalds and subway would bother plastering their company logo on their otherwise unseen roofs if a huge tower full of tourists didn’t happen to be looming over them.

i left auckland feeling glad that i´d finally had the chance to visit, but, conversely, that i wouldn’t have been particularly bothered if i had never been in the first place. it’s located in a wonderful setting, and from a distance, the cluster of skyscrapers aspiring to the height of the sky tower is quite a compelling view. but i think i’d rather keep it that way – at a distance.

our next stop was the coromandel peninsula. we found some incredible isolated beaches here, but the most quirky of them was anything but. prior to our visit to hot water beach, i had imagined that it would be only myself, sally, and perhaps one or two other curious travelers who would be digging valiantly through unspoilt sand in search for the volcanically-heated thermal waters that give the beach its name rather literal name. as we rounded the jagged cliffs, however, a huge gaggle of tourists emerged, packed into a space of little more than 10 square metres, with large, abandoned holes scattered in the surrounding sand.

it turned out that everyone knew about hot water beach, of course, and that everyone wanted to find the hot water. i immediately realised that my anticipation had been unrealistic, and soon found myself queuing – yes, queuing – to dip my toes in the warm sea water. after a bit of awkward waiting, we got our chance to experience it for ourselves. the water was insanely hot in places – it was literally impossible to stand on some parts of the sand for more than a split second, such was the heat. and yet, a couple of centimeters to one side of that same spot, the water would be stone cold. a lot of mixing had to be done, and sally and i soon set to work moving the sandy water around to run our sand bath to a reasonable temperature. once that had been achieved, we enjoyed warning newcomers as to the extreme heat of certain spots, and enjoyed even more the transition from skeptical smirk to surprised shriek as they went to sit there anyway.

once in rotorua we looked around the village of whakarewarewa, where we watched a disappointingly timid geyser and an undisappointingly exciting maori culture show. we visited the beautiful redwood forest - a 110-year-old gathering of trees as large as 6 metres in circumference – and then took the gondola up to an impressive lookout point over lake rotorua, where i decided to do some luging down the excellent luge tracks. i enjoyed it so much that i could have done it all over again. so i did – another 4 times, in fact, becoming momentarily airborne on a number of occasions.

from rotorua we drove across to napier on the east coast. napier is celebrated as being the ‘art deco’ city of new zealand, but i really didn’t think that the architecture was much to write home about – not that i often write home about buildings. i think i may have been expecting a series of new york chrysler buildings, which may go some way in diagnosing the root of my disappointment, but instead i got a couple of ford garages with little twiddly bits on the roofs that are supposedly intended to allude to some 1920s heyday.

otherwise, the town was nice enough, and the backpackers in which we were camping proved to be a peaceful enough spot to make some progress with my composing. we did run into some misfortune here, however, and this too may explain why i don’t have the fondest memories of my time in napier.

it was a mild summer’s evening, and sally and i decided to go for an appropriately summery evening drive. we were pootling along at a snail’s pace, as we often do when deep in conversation, when we came to an intersection at a main highway. i remarked to sally that there was a police car waiting conspicuously at the side of the road, no doubt to catch out speeding cars. coincidentally, as we turned onto the highway, i saw in my rearview mirror that the police car was no longer on the side of the road, but now driving a fair distance behind us. moments later, the police car was right on our tail, and lo and behold, on came his blue and red lights.

i knew i couldn’t possibly have been speeding, so i was quite perplexed as to what reason the policeman could have had to pull me over. he eventually came to my window, and asked why i hadn’t stopped at the stop sign. my mind instantly flicked back a few seconds, and i replied instinctively, ‘i did, didn’t i?’. apparently i hadn’t, and within a couple of minutes i found myself with a $150 fine for, sure enough, ‘failing to stop at a stop sign’.

only moments before, sally and i had been reminiscing our favourite travelling moments whilst sharing a portion of fish and chips on the not particularly sandy beach of hawke’s bay. and then, in an instant, all of our meticulously careful planning so as to minimise expenditure had been undone. the officer explained that they had a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ for not stopping at stop signs, and although i had broken that law, i still couldn’t help but feel a little hard-done-by. after all, i hadn’t intentionally driven through the stop sign, and i hadn’t realised that one literally has to come to a complete halt before proceeding, even when it is plain to see for a good few kilometers in either direction - as was the case at this time - that there is no on-coming traffic.

the officer wasn’t brusque or impolite or condescending – in fact he was quite friendly. but it was this friendliness and the swiftness and efficiency with which i had been dealt that meant i was left by the side of the road feeling as though i had just been robbed. still, the law’s the law, and i definitely won’t be making that mistake again.

the fuel gauge in the peugeot is somewhat (read: wholly) unreliable, and it caught me out during our drive from napier to taupo. i thought that we had over a quarter of a tank left, which should have been plenty to get us to the next petrol station. one steep hill later, however, the needle suddenly plummeted, and on came the orange warning light. it flickered on and off for a few minutes, as it decided whether we really did have petrol or not. by the time it had settled down and decided resolutely that we were in fact distinctly low on petrol, it became apparent that there were in fact no petrol stations between napier and taupo. to cut the story of a very long, edge-of-the-seat, hour-and-a-half journey short, we drove 150km on the orange light, and somehow made it to taupo in time to refuel. i think we only made it by driving no faster than 80kph in 100kph zones, unless we were descending a steep hill, in which case i put it in neutral and let gravity get us up to 100. on our way out of taupo two days later, we would see the ‘no petrol stations for 150km’ sign that would have been so useful before.

taupo was another unremarkable town, but the huge lake and the huka falls that drain into it are undeniably spectacular. we hung around long enough to try out the lake’s own hot water beach - which was more akin to how i’d imagined the one in the coromandel to be - and then were on our way to the tongariro national park.
we headed to tongariro with the intention of surmounting the renowned alpine trail crossing, but our plan was thwarted by bad weather, which meant that the conditions were alas too treacherous for us to go. but we did manage to get an excellent view of tongariro, ruapehu and ngaurahoe – the latter of which cameoed as mount doom in the lord of the rings trilogy – on our drive into the national park.

the next day we sallied forth to new plymouth, where we were to stay with sally’s aunt and uncle for the next few days. this was a welcome respite from 2 weeks of often-unluxurious camping, the crux of which had occurred the night before when it transpired that we’d been sleeping in a puddle.

what a difference it can make to be shown around a place rather than to explore for oneself. don’t get me wrong – i have been enjoying exploring the north island, especially at our own pace and on our own terms since we have had owen’s car. but after a while it feels as though we’re only visiting the outer shell of each town, not stopping long enough to get to know anyone there, and moving on to the next place and doing the same thing many times in a row.

our rate of travel in south america was so much more leisurely than this, spending up to a week in some places (iquique, buenos aires, mendoza, bariloche, santiago) rather than a mere day or two. towns do have a tendency to blur into one when you’re moving this quickly, when there are no distinguishing features such as people to tell one town from the other - and knowing someone who lives in a place you’re visiting means that you’re suddenly privy to all of the best-kept secrets that one would otherwise have insufficient time or know-how to find.

another thing is the difference it makes to be a passenger rather than a driver. we have covered a huge amount of road in the past few weeks – more than 2000 miles, in fact – and viewing a country from behind the wheel of a car, rather than being able to gaze pensively out of a side window, makes a big difference to me.

it is with these points in mind that our visit to new plymouth was probably my most enjoyed time on the north island. we ate excellent food, walked on beautiful beaches, saw good music, and, perhaps most importantly, had new people to talk to.

we went to the arthouse cinema in town to see a superb film called ‘last paradise’ – an inspiring and thought-provoking documentary based loosely on the theme of enjoying nature without impacting negatively on it. the theatre was a wonderful hotchpotch of different sofas – some old and bedraggled, some shiny leather, some slightly questionable zebra skin - and there was a small bar to one side that sold coffee and cakes and other delights that you wouldn’t otherwise find in your usual chain cinema.

other highlights during our time in new plymouth included a walk around mt taranaki, taking part in a pub quiz, and befriending jan and maurice’s little dog, gemma.

wellington was our last stop on the north island before heading south over the cook strait. here at last was the big city feel that i’d been looking for in auckland but never found. there is so much more to do in wellington than in other towns, and i could quite easily imagine myself settling there without wondering how on earth i’d pass the time (aside from the obvious exploration of the great outdoors). the whole place has a lot more character than other settlements we’ve visited on the north island, from the colourful, tightknit, wood-shack-style housing that lines the many hills, to the little red cable cars that trundle up and down towards the beautiful botanical gardens above.

wellington lived up to its windy reputation on the evening of our arrival – so much so that we finally caved and stayed in a hostel for a couple of nights, rather than our trusty second property. the next two days, however, were absolutely beautiful and, save for the unexpected morning chill, it was warm and sunny throughout, with some low pressure coming in from the east. apparently wellington isn’t often like that, so i think we were lucky.

the te papa museum has to be one of the finest museums in the world, and the experiences of learning interactively about plate tectonics and taking part in a simulated earthquake are made all the more enjoyable because they are free. te papa houses the largest-known colossal squid. the video documenting its capture was very interesting, but i was confused as to why - if the specimen was as beautiful as they kept saying it was - they had to kill it rather than let it go.

there is also a large interactive video wall thing on the first floor of the museum in which users can, with the use of some sort of wand-like object, graffiti images and distort and ‘animate’ pre-existing photos of unknown people and places as is their wont. at least, i thought that they were pre-existing images of unknown people and places. i went to rekindle my schoolboy days of drawing a moustache and unfeminine eyebrows on a picture of what i had assumed was some random preset lady. little did i know that the random preset lady was in fact not only present in the museum at that exact moment, but also standing directly behind me, somehow having only moments before ingeniously uploaded a photo of herself onto the wall. with more or less precise synchronicity, the lady shrieked ‘hey! who did that!?’ just as sally awkwardly called out my name. i swiftly stowed my wand, performing a quick expelliarmus charm on the tangible form of the annotated lady before doing so, and sally and i promptly left the arena of the interactive wall.

i think one of the things i enjoyed most about wellington was that it has been the only place so far to remind me of the new zealand that i knew from my time here before. and since christchurch is reportedly unrecognisable now, i think wellington may well be the closest i get to enjoying that sense of familiarity and nostalgia that up to now has been strangely absent.

although it may seem a bit over-romantic to say it, there is a smell in the air, a particular quality to the hubbub - surprisingly tranquil for a city of its size - that smacks of christchurch to me. even the hostel in which we were staying had the same aroma as my place in addington – though this was most likely due to the damp carpet and curtains that also plagued 21 poulson street. i wonder if that house is still standing.

i leave the north island now with mixed feelings. i loved northland, new plymouth and wellington, but i found a lot of the rest of the island to be a lot less enchanting than that which used to be my back yard – that is, the canterbury plains, the port hills and, of course, the southern alps – or at least how i remember it to have been. in a few days’ time i’ll be able to decide if my memory serves me correctly!

the last of latin america

maipú – circa mendoza, argentina. we were welcomed into mr hugo’s bike shop, and the lovely lady who i presume was mrs hugo soon went about annotating our map of maipú with indications as to the best wineries to visit. by the time she’d finished, our map was somewhat unusable due to the extent of her circling this and arrowing towards that, but we thanked her anyway and set off on our tour.

i coped much better on the bike than i had anticipated, and any uncontrollable weaving that was initially telling of my amateurish cycling style was gradually cancelled out by the uncontrollable weaving that took place as a result of the steady consumption of wine. nonetheless, my inebriated veneer of cycling proficiency was apparently seen through immediately by the local police, who promptly pulled us over and asked if there was a problem with my bicycle. i explained that there was no problem with lucille, and that i was simply bad at cycling. the officers let us go on our way, turning their attention to a nearby man who was eating some grapes. it wasn’t long before the officers and the grape-eating man overtook us in their patrol car.

the wineries varied somewhat from one to the next, and it was enjoyable to witness the contrasts between old (19th century) and new, small (40,000 bottles produced a year) and large (2,000,000 bottles a year), humble (cart wheels mounted upon decrepit walls and old ladies sticking labels to wine bottles by hand) and outlandishly opulent (plush screening rooms, gentleman’s club-like tasting facilities and posh toilets that thanked us for allowing them the honour of accepting our waste).

we enjoyed the tour so much that we returned sans bike the next day to see a couple more of the wineries that we’d run out of time to visit the day before. we also visited the beer garden, which was a quirky smattering of antique (looking) cupboards and dressing tables and chairs made out of barrels, located in a small field towards the outer fringe of the wine-tour circuit.

i gathered some valuable information about wine-tasting over these two days, such as how to swill wine properly, that a wine barrel typically contains circa 300 bottles’ worth of wine (i’d guessed something more like 50 upon my enquiry) and that with the best tips in the world i can’t detect any notes of raspberry, oak, coffee or toast.

aside from the wine tour, we spent the remainder of our time in mendoza wandering through the large park, comparing ice creams at the various parlours, and exploring the many squares the city has to offer (one large and four small). our hostel here was one of the larger and noisier ones of the past few months, and the bunks had a tendency to sway squeakily with as small a movement as the arching of one’s eyebrows (and i happen to do this quite a lot). but it had a good location and we were welcomed with two free big beers on our first night, so it wasn’t all bad.

we headed south after running out of ice cream vendors in mendoza, and we were greeted by an even larger number in bariloche, of an infinitely more superior quality. staying in our hostel there was like staying at a friend’s house - albeit a friend whom you pay on a nightly basis, and who kicks you out by 10.30am and charges you for an extra night’s accommodation if you’re not out by this time. we had single, non-bunk beds this time, which was a welcome respite from the previous place.

the strangest thing about bariloche was that it was my first encounter of what i consider to be true quaintness in a spanish-speaking country. hispanic culture to me can be impressive and beautiful, yes, but chiefly for its scale and grandeur – and yet here was a part of argentina which felt decidedly more suited to a central-european location rather than its actual north-patagonian one.

bariloche is a place to endulge, with the best ice cream and empanadas in argentina (at least in my experience), excellent seafood (is it still classed as seafood if it’s from a freshwater lake?) and countless chocolate boutiques. the serving of ice cream seems more an art than a transaction, with the various flavours being slathered onto cones or into pots via rather ornate-looking spatulars, rounded off with a melodramatic, interpretive dance-style flourish of the wrist to encapsulate the quintessence of the moment.

we explored the colonia suiza, a small community of swiss immigrants in the mountains with beautiful chalets and a little market selling artisanal craft and amazing pies and strudels, and made the slow trudge up cerro campanario – one of the many hills that surrounds bariloche and overlooks the lakes – to the best lookout point in the area. the walk turned out to be incredibly steep, incredibly dusty and incredibly non-zigzagging, which made for a slow, arduous climb that wasn’t entirely what we’d been expecting. the view, however, was spectacular. we took the chairlift down and i was hit in the face by some leaves.

the next day i went kayaking on lago gutierrez. this was no kayak in the park – this was the proper thing, with rudder-controlling pedals and a ‘waterproof skirt’ (i preferred ‘tunic’) to seal you in place. we paddled for a good couple of hours up the lake to a stoney beach, where the guides - in a somewhat mary poppins-like fashion - somehow produced a table, bottles of soft drinks, some glasses and biscuits from somewhere within one of their kayaks.

the water on the lake was among the clearest i’ve seen and, naturally, i filled my bottle from the lake a number of times. save from the mountain spring in samaipata in bolivia, this was the first time i’d had the pleasure of drinking from a natural source of water.

i’ve taken it upon myself to start drinking yerba mate, which is a sort of fetid variety of green tea that is extremely popular in argentina, across all age groups. i even bought a hollowed-out pumpkin vessel, ‘primed’ it (soaked it in mate for a couple of days) and named it harold. although i can’t say i much like the putrid bitterness of the tea, i think that with a bit of sugar to sweeten the deal, i could get quite into this way of enjoying caffeinated drinks. the fact that i inadvertedly left harold behind in bariloche didn’t bode well for my newly-appointed hobby, but i’ve since bought haroldito ii, which is a slightly smaller vessel, with which i hope to continue.

the argentine accent has a notable italian flamboyance to it, which i’m guessing is due to the large community of italian immigrants. this is particularly noticeable in such words/phrases as ‘bueno’, ‘de nada’ and something, and since there is no audible excerpt with which to demonstrate this lilt, i’ve decided that it’s best described as employing an interval of a minor 6th, spread via a descending glissando.
after a brief overnight stop in the small town of san martin de los andes - a miniature version of bariloche in which we spent about 4 hours looking for a replacement mate gourd – we re-entered chile and headed straight to pucón. the journey was stunning, skirting yet more pristine and beautiful lakes, through valleys speckled with monkey puzzle trees, verging ever closer towards towering volcan villarrica beyond, which would continue to loom ominously over us well into our time in pucón.

pucón is a town not unlike bariloche, with a less impressive lake view but a much more magnificent one of aforementioned volcan villarrica in the opposite direction to the water. there is rarely a time when the great white peak is out of view wherever one is in pucón, and equally rare are the times when the volcano isn’t spouting a large cloud of smoke. the presence of an indigenous population was immediately palpable after the sparsity of indigenous communities in argentina, and it was nice to see the return of colourful rugs and garments in the marketplaces.

ignoring the smoldering threats of the volcano, sally and i joined the hundreds who take to the volcano each day in an attempt to conquer the old girl. we did pretty well, for our part, despite some of the most powerful, prolonged and unforgiving winds i have ever experience, which led our guides to warn that it was unlikely that we would make it to the top (although, we heard that they always say that because they don’t like climbing the mountain… which is a bit odd).

we continued on through the wind at what i thought was a decidedly slow pace, with ice axes in one hand and our faces shielded in the other. after an hour or two of the slow trudging, we reached the first bits of snow and ice around halfway up the mountain, and from there things became a bit more difficult.

it was around this point that i realised how fortunate sally and i have been on this trip when it comes to guides. aníbal in guatemala, andy in peru and saul in bolivia were all excellent guides who seemed as enthusiastic as we were to be doing the treks in question. this guide, however, whose name i won’t utter here (because i can’t remember it), raced off ahead of us as soon as we began, and was entirely unhelpful for the remainder of the hike. once we reached the snow, we saw the guides from the other tour companies telling their groups to put on their helmets, gloves, jackets and other waterproof gear. i had to seek out our guide who was lying against a wall, resting his eyes. i asked him if we needed to put on our gear. ‘sure’, he replied. it wasn’t until half an hour or so into the walking on the snow that our guide decided to tell us the best way to do it without falling over.

onwards we went, ever upwards, through the snow and over the ice. the arid summer heat had long left us behind, and been replaced by biting winds and a cold bum. i couldn’t help but notice how the incline was becoming steeper and steeper, and that the sheets of ice on which we were walking were now plummeting hundreds of meters towards rather unfriendly-looking rock formations. at one point we had to cross a ridge around 100 metres in length, wide enough for only one person at a time, with the wind billowing in our faces, and with those unwelcomingly sheer drops now on either side of us.

we surmounted the ridge, losing one man (he waited behind, you understand), and continued upwards, now only a few hundred meters from the fuming summit. our guide had raced off again, and was doing a particularly bad job of leaving us any sort of sturdy footprints in which to follow (which was his job). my attention was now focused only on the steepness of our climb, and the distance one would fall if one were to slip at this point. we had eventually been shown how to use our ice axes both to steady ourselves whilst walking, and to stop ourselves mid-fall if we did happen to slip over on the ice. but my imagination was running away with itself, and without prior experience or practice of falling on the ice i simply couldn’t trust a piece of metal to stop me dropping all that way at such a steep angle.

each footstep became increasingly more unsteady, and the poorly-beaten paths became more and more crowded, until finally, at 350 metres from the summit, i admitted defeat. i had stopped enjoying the ascent, and was too worried about falling and injuring myself – which, at the time, i considered to be particularly likely. despite my desire to stop, i was still surprised at myself. i noticed that, save a few others, everyone else was continuing the struggle up the hill - and that would normally go some way in assuring me that it was safe. but i was too convinced that i was going to slip, and that i wouldn’t be able to stop myself from falling once i had started. i would later find out that the hike is indeed as dangerous as i had thought, and that scores of people do fall and either injure themselves or die.

after questioning myself for some minutes, we began our descent. walking down on the snow and ice was even worse than walking up, but our second-in-command guide – a thoroughly more believable guide, at that – then explained that we could slide down on our backsides if we so wished. it was at this point that, when sitting down and trying to propel myself forward with my arms and legs, that i realised how difficult it was to slide down on the snow. and at that moment i felt a combination of feelings: relief that i wasn’t going to fall to my doom quite so easily, and great disappointment that i had given up so quickly, and that i could after all have made it to the summit.

my disappointment and regret was shortlived, however, as our guide pointed out a groove that someone else’s buttocks had carved out beautifully in the snow. this pre-carved chasm was more like a waterslide than the surprisingly well-gripping, unspoilt snow around it, and with thawed nerves i commenced my sliding.
it was slow work at first, and even in the buttock-chasm speed was lacking. after a few minutes of undignified crawling, we reached some cracks in the ice. these were alarming at first, and i whimpered like a little girl. but then they became wider, and turned into natural gorges which were perfect for bottom-sliding. these were pleasing, and i laughed like a man.

we were told at the beginning of the hike that, on average, the ascent time is 5 hours, and that the descent time is 1 hour. after a few minutes of descent, it became clear why. the gorges were about a metre wide and 3 metres high – although varying in places – which meant that there wasn’t really any way of falling out of the gorge, regardless of one’s speed. we were later given some plastic paddles to sit on which increased speed ten-fold and made acceleration to such speeds more or less immediate. we had to use our ice axes as brakes and, although effective, my speed was such that there were a couple of close calls. all in all, though, we reached the bottom of villarrica infinitely happier than when we were at the top.

the next day we visited the thermal springs in the small town of cañeripe, a couple of hours north of pucón. there are 17 different baths there in total, ranging in temperature from 76c (which is banned) to a chilly 8c, which is fed directly from a waterfall. we spent a good 4 hours there, testing the different temperatures, spending too long in some and making ourselves feel sick, and cooling off/warming up gently in others. the whole complex is set in a natural valley full of ferns, and there is a pretty, wooden track – painted red - that follows the 1-mile valley to its end, branching off to the various pools along the way. a nice feature, aside from the warm water, is the network of small wooden tunnels that channels the thermal water into each pool. the same network feeds a continuous supply of cold water into the bathroom basins, in place of a normal tap.

our last day in pucón was the first dull and dreary day in many weeks, and it therefore became another day assigned to essential/gratuitous admin work. it was so grey outside that even villarrica had its head in the clouds. we booked our bus to santiago to leave that evening and, as a direct result of that, appeared in santiago the very next day.

we’ve been staying with will and ellen for the past week now, and it has been bliss. we have our own little room that opens up onto the large terrace, which itself overlooks santiago and the distant mountains, which i’m sure themselves would be a grand sight were they not forever masked by smog.

it’s been amazing to be able to sleep in as long as we want, without being disturbed, and without having to worry about disturbing anyone else in turn, and we’ve been spoilt somewhat for food, whether homemade or bought. we’ve sampled santiago’s best empanada and ice cream offerings, which it turns out are a good match for anything that argentina can offer (save for the mcdonald’s and burger king varieties).

it’s also been fun getting to know paka, their cat, who has a shorter attention span than i do. it is only as we’re about to leave that i’ve become used to - even expectant of – being pounced on for accidentally twitching my little finger whilst reading. his signature bear-hug pounce and the fact that he doesn’t use his claws has been duly noted for my ‘best cat’ award.

on thursday i made my acting debut, alongside sally, will and ellen, in a chilean film by the name of ‘los manos como son’. we all had lines, and mine were particularly long. the director called me up to the room in which we’d be filming my part and proceeded to explain in his fast, incoherent spanish that i would need to walk into the room, explain that i had the month’s rent, and then say along the lines of:

‘you remember we spoke about having a small party tonight? i’m leaving with my friends tomorrow to go on vacation, and i wanted to check it’s ok. it will only be the people of the house, and daniella, gonzalo and felipe, whom you already know. i will take full responsibility.’

it would have been enough to try to remember all that in english, given that i was only told my lines only 5 minutes before the director was shouting ‘accion!’. i created a nice groove in the floor whilst pacing frantically up and down, trying for the life of me to remember all of these lines, in tenses that i can’t use, with words that i’ve never heard before and can barely decipher due to the director’s strong chilean accent.
the main problem, though, was trying to understand the protagonist’s (geronimo, who had a very big beard) questions in response to my dialogue. after numerous amusingly erroneous takes, the director said that we were done for now, and sent me back downstairs in the waiting area. i passed will on the stairs, who was going up to do his part.

when will returned, he explained that he’d really struggled to remember his lines because they were so long, and that the director had told him that he needed to say that he had this month’s rent, and was to ask geronimo if it was ok to hold a little leaving party… it seems as though we both failed with that bit!

on numerous occasions throughout my trip so far i’ve found myself surprised at how different this continent is from one end to another. and it is only now, after the inevitable reflection that comes with entering one’s final few days in a place, that i realise that i shouldn’t really be surprised at all. my assumption that south america should be largely the same from one point to the next is undoubtedly based on both the colonial spanish heritage that the constituent countries share, and the resulting domination of the spanish language therein.

it strikes me as odd that the sharing of a language across the majority of a continent would lead me to ignore all the other facets of that continent’s potential diversity and assume – prior to visiting - that that group of countries is therefore the same throughout. i wouldn’t go to portugal expecting it to be the same as germany, and there’s a much smaller distance between those two countries than a lot of the distances i’ve travelled throughout south america.

nonetheless, the variety i have witnessed has, at times, been astonishing. it is quite striking to me that a distance of but a few feet can mean the difference between rich and poor: between dirt trails and smooth asphalt roads (as was the case when crossing from bolivia to chile), indigenous to european (chile to argentina), a happy stomach to clinging to the toilet bowl for dear life (peru to bolivia), paying to squat over a hole in the ground compared to using a free bathroom with toilet paper, soap and towels (bolivia to argentina).

but this is not only my departure from south america, but from latin america as a whole. i am entirely reluctant to be giving up my immersion in the spanish language, not only because i have been enjoying getting to grips with it, but because i really don’t want to be forgetting that which i’ve learnt heretofore. some sort of information-retaining device would be very useful at this juncture, but for now i’ll have to rely on what small service my memory can provide.

and as i once again turn to reflect on the past 4 months in latin america, i realise that the things that have plagued me most during my time here are also the things that i shall most miss: touting (where else in the world can you be offered a tuk-tuk ride whilst travelling in the back of a truck?), the long bus journeys (during which time it is acceptable to sit still and listen to music and absorb the fleeting landscape without feeling guilty for not utilising one’s time to its full potential), and the ubiquitous dulce de leche. actually, no – i don’t miss that last one.

so now i sign off from latin america, and begin the second leg of our trip: the antipodes, and my inevitable return to new zealand - the journey to which ensures that i don’t get a 2nd of march this year. nos vemos, américa latina!

argentina, part one

our journey to salta was long but unremarkable, due to a distinct lack of the annoyances and discomforts that characterise more or less all bolivian bus rides, and to which we were apparently still accustomed. and thus, having slept surprisingly well, we arrived in the first destination of our last new south american country.

we went to hail a cab, passing the waiting time by observing that intriguing south american practise of queue-jumping. it is said that no one queues like the british, but i'd never really had a reason to consider such a claim until this trip. it seems that any slight curvature in a queue here is seen as an invitation to those with an apparently more urgent need to do whatever it is that necessitates the queuing in the first place to branch off from the queue tangentially, and from there, to slowly but surely slip in front of those who intersect the newly-formed bypass. there is a trick to it: he who is joining the queue at a tangent has quite skilfully (and non-verbally) to attempt to convince those with a legitimate place in the queue that he is unaware that he is cutting in front of them, thereby excusing him from committing the heinous act. the main challenge to this technique is robustly ignoring the glares of the relegated, who know that you know that they know that you're cutting in front of them, but who are for some reason too polite to say anything (which is something on which the jumper relies).

it was finally our turn to get in the taxi (having cunningly cut ahead in the queue by joining it perpendicularly, thereby undercutting both the original line and its tangent). our driver turned to me, pointing at the stereo. 'cumbia', he said, as though he too was aware that the only sound we'd heard since lima 2 months ago was that of the ubiquitous reggaeton. he eagerly sifted through the seemingly identical tracks on the cd, glancing up to look at the road now and then, and i got the impression that this was to be the new artistic form of auditory communication that would plague us for the remainder of our south american trip.

i enjoyed argentina immediately. there are numerous reasons for this, such as being able to achieve better than level 7 on the bristol stool scale, the continuation of the love affair with ice cream (which began in chile), and public bathrooms being fully equipped with soap and toilet paper. beyond this, the country so far just has a very agreeable feel to it.

i've often worried during this trip at the realisation that i get excited by the idea of visiting a european-esque place, because it makes me wonder why i'm bothering with south america if i'm so interested in europe. but i don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. i think it's easier for me to anticipate a place if i have a reference point for my pre-visit imaginations, and i do find it interesting to note how a place can look european but feel nothing like it.

iguazu was one of those insanely hot places where one is forever covered in a fine layer of sweat. it almost seems planned that one of the largest waterfalls in the world would be located here, to shower its refreshing, happiness-inducing spray upon its visitors as welcome respite from the unforgiving sun and suffocating humidity.

although the falls are an undeniably spectacular site, the sheer sound was one of the things that impressed me most. i tend to find an unbroken wall of sound to be as perfect as complete silence, in the same way that unspoilt silence can be deafening. it feels as though one can almost bathe in unbroken loudness, as with the roar of a hovering harrier jump jet, the tinnitus-inducing vignettes of a loud rock band or, as in this case, the sound of water cascading at a rate of up to 12,800m3 per second. the result of standing next to the garganta del diablo - the largest cataract at iguazu - was that of bathing in the sound, the sight and the cool embrace of the engulfing mist in one soggy assault on the senses.

because a gentle bathing of three senses simultaneously wasn't enough, we went on a brief speedboat trip around the falls. the main point of this trip was to get everyone soaked, and it didn't fail to deliver. we also did a more leisurely dinghy trip along a less plummeting part of the river, to have a bit of an introduction to iguazu and its environs. our captain (the bloke with the oars) casually indicated to an alligator that was swimming no more than 2 metres from us. i wasn't expecting that.

buenos aires is hot (43.5c the other day), noisy, and very very big. thinking about it, that doesn't sound like a particularly appealing combination - but it definitely works. it comprises the world's largest thoroughfare - 20 lanes wide, by my count - which is something that i find unaccountably and inexplicably interesting. our hostel, located on the corner of this gargantuan avenue - avenida 9 de julio - and avenida mayo, has probably been my favourite so far. i can't express what a difference it makes to have the basic luxuries of toilet paper, soap and a hand towel provided by a hostel. there was also no 'lights-out' time, unlike at other hostels where ABSOLUTE SILENCE AND DARKNESS must be attained from the hours of 10pm to 8am. it all just had a very relaxed feel.

in the last 4 months that we've been travelling, we've met only two other english people. so it was with a mite of surprise that we found around 10 english travellers all in the same hostel. at the beginning of my travels i'd been thinking how i wasn't particularly interested in running into fellow britons, but now that i have, i'm quite enjoying it. it just seems so much easier and automatic than trying to explain everything in a way that can be understood by everyone all the time.

on the monday we all went to 'la bomba de tiempo', which is a brazilian street samba show in an arts venue that wouldn't look out of place in east london. it was very loud, and very fun. there were even members of the audience who took it upon themselves to go up to the front and dance in a trance-like state as though for the benefit of the remaining throng of us in the audience who weren't feeling the music as much they were, which was very kind of them.

despite the architectural beauty in its microcenter (downtown bit), there is no escaping that about 75% of buenos aires looks identical. and a typical walk along one of the constituents of this giant grid will generally result in being dripped on by one of the countless overhead air conditioners, an offer to see a tango show that night, and a wade through the aroma of the ubiquitous empanadas.

there are numerous other quirks about buenos aires which, for me, are an intrinsic part of its character. on the metro there seems to be a strange tradition in which vendors traverse the length of each metro carriage, carefully placing generally undesirable items (lemon-flavour gum, thick wool socks, swedish crossword books) on passengers' laps, and then coming back about 3 minutes later to collect money for whatever the item is. i have yet to see anyone buy one of the items, which results in what must surely be a fairly humiliating experience for the would-be salesperson.

another curious pastime occurs in the early hours, when people come out of their homes to sift through the rubbish bags that adorn more or less every street. it's unclear as to nature of the quarry - whether it's a desire to sort the polyethylene terephthalates from the low-density polyethelynes, a search for an item accidentally disposed of, or if they're just looking for food. either way, it usually requires the unceremonious tearing open of refuse bags, and results in an unsightly cascade of rubbish - including all manner of poly-ethylenes, -vinyls and -styrenes - to be caught in the wind.

taxi journeys are exciting in buenos aires. they adhere to the generally-held taxi-driving maxims of the rest of latin america, which are:

1) do not stop for anything, ever
2) prepare for gratuitous use of carhorn in the event that stopping/slight braking is necessary - even when it's not

and given that the majority of roads in buenos aires are one-way, at least 6 lanes wide, and fairly well-paved, it seems the perfect arena for a perpetual 40,000-strong race. additionally, all of the taxis here are corsas - albeit of the chevrolet saloon variety. i told our driver that i drove a corsa back in the uk, but he didn't appear to share my enthusiasm on the matter.

booking bus tickets is always an enjoyable task, as my surname, when being entered into the database, is always invariably likened to that of harry potter. i guess potter and porter sound the same in a spanish accent.

the last interesting point about buenos aires (and something that is the case in all of argentina, for that matter), is the curious shortage of coins. i've read that inflation in argentina is such that the value of the metal that makes up the coins themselves is now more valuable than the coins' face-value, which means that people are hoarding them to sell on at profit on the black market. whether this is the reason or not, it makes day-to-day transactions a lot more interesting. shopkeepers hound customers for a peso or 50 cents, and it becomes increasingly obvious that customers are lying when they say they don't have that sort of small change (it takes one to know one), with an audible, guilty jingle emitted with every expressive gesture that accompanies the customer's proclaimed innocence. it's priceless, as it were, to see the cashier's expression when attempting to buy a 3-peso empanada with a 100-peso note. all of this means that buying a bus ticket, which is 1 peso and 20 cents, can be very awkward/impossible. as a tourist, i think it's an interesting quirk, but i expect that this coin-shortage encourages everyone to hoard a little, which i suppose can only cause the problem to snowball further towards a coinless world of doom, not unlike that of post-war germany.

this last point makes quite an interesting contrast to bolivia, where the smallest denomination is 10 cents, even though supermarket products are still priced at obscure values such as 10 bolivianos and 67 cents. someone must be losing out significantly somewhere over the years.

on a side note from, well, nothing - south american football commentary is great. i'm going to start timing how long they can shout 'goooooooaaaaaal' - but i'm already sure that they can exceed 30 seconds.

despite being the second largest city in south america, i never felt unsafe in buenos aires. but after hearing on the day we left that an american friend of ours had that day been drugged, taken to 8 ATMs to draw out over 1000USD without his knowledge (but, due to the drug, with his consent) and left in a park face-down 4 hours later, i realised that we may just have been lucky. it's slightly alarming to consider that there is a drug that can leave you completely coherent and compliant, yet completely unaware and unable to remember anything that happens to you for the duration of the drug's effect.

it was always going to be difficult for another big city to seem exciting immediately after buenos aires, and there is a certain something about cordoba that hints at being the neglected younger sibling in this regard. the architecture lacks the opulence and diversity of its buenos aires counterparts, being mostly homogeneous towers of tan-coloured brick; the parks seem unfinished and rough around the edges, as though they could have been pristine once, or that they may yet be that way again; and the river is a sorry, dried-up trickle that barely justifies its high, optimistic stone banks.

nonetheless, cordoba does still hold some sort of indeterminable appeal. perhaps it's the vast array of patisseries, which sell pastries for as little as 1 peso (circa 15p) a pop, or the intriguing regional accent in which the double l sound is replaced with 'sh' (resulting in poisho, amarisho and asha). or perhaps it's simply the fact that cordoba doesn't HAVE to be one of the most amazing cities you've ever visited, because it doesn't have the same preceding reputation that can sometimes thwart a destination (though, thankfully, i didn't find this to be the case with buenos aires). one thing that i can say for cordoba is that it has, without a doubt, the most truly astonishing cathedral i have ever seen.

a lady in a patisserie yesterday looked at me as though i'd just piddled on the floor in front of her when i asked "hay empanadas?". i eventually realised that my vowels have become too lazy, and that it needs to be more "em-pah-nah-dass" than "empernarders". still, my accentual rectification did little to better her facial expression.

we ventured to alta gracia, a small town an hour or so to cordoba's southwest, where che guevara lived in his youth. we had a look around the house in which he had lived as a boy, but our main interest was the 'todo el mundo' festival, which is a celebration of international food, accompanied by music. considering it's supposed to showvase all of the world's food, it was surprising to see only about 20 countries with stalls - with a notable absence of anything english. it was also interesting to discover just how many countries had empanadas as one of their national dishes. armenia, iraq, the united states and germany all have empanadas as their national dish, apparently.

despite this apparent inaccuracy, we did our best to work our way through the world, and between us managed armenia, brazil, cuba, france, italy, spain and the united states. it was confusing to see an argentina stand. i mean, why would you go to a festival of world food and eat the food from your home country?

the following day we spent a lazy saturday afternoon by an equally lazy river by a small town called cuesta blanca. the highlights were being laughed at by the locals (presumably for being english), and falling asleep on a rock.

kirsty, the director of the film i most recently scored, has been in touch in the last couple of days to ask if i will work with her once again to provide the soundtrack for two acts that she will be taking to the edinburgh fringe festival in september. i'm currently seeing if i can get hold of the software i need, and trying to decide whether it will be a viable option to be producing a soundtrack from a tiny netbook in some noisy youth hostels in the southern hemisphere. it will probably be quite difficult, but it would make a good story!

i finish on a sad note. i've just learnt of the death of victor - a friend and fellow drummer from guatemala - who was shot twice in the head as he was leaving a hip-hop practice in guatemala city earlier this week. i feel as though a distant yet great light has just gone out, and been replaced by a gaping, unfillable void. i knew him for only a brief time, but i will never forget the effect that his unwavering passion for music and his warmth for everyone and everything had on me.
it was whilst whizzing along the bumpy, winding road from santa cruz to samaipata that i realised my need to escape city life and return to that of small rural towns and their scenery beyond. although i shouldn’t be too hard on myself – i have had food poisoning, after all, and there has been a nationwide fuel-crisis – i shouldn’t have spent so long in the big bolivian cities, because they are so uninspiring to me.

i found myself gazing out onto the blurry bolivian countryside thinking about how unmoved i’ve been by this country so far, at least in comparison to our previous 3 destinations. and then, as if out of some sort of poignant protest, a dark figure caught my eye. and in that moment i realised how brilliantly green the surroundings are, and how magnificent are the great red cliffs that flank us on our way deeper into the amazon basin. the figure circled effortlessly high overhead, without even a single beat of its wings. high over the red cliffs it glided, as i pondered the identity of such a large flying creature. and it was then that reminded myself that bolivia hasn’t finished with me yet, and that it still has so much more to offer.

perhaps it was the improving scenery, or perhaps it was that i finally felt back to full strength, but i suddenly felt a lot better about that place. there was room to breathe and to move and to think. there was peace and quiet, and that particular town seemed to have an actual sense of style. the temperature was so much more bearable too – a lot cooler and fresher than stifling santa cruz, where i was covered in sweat even when lying down.

i’ve been perhaps more indifferent about santa cruz than i have been about any other town or city i’ve visited so far on this trip. the city is huge, but had little that interested me. it was loud and hot and crowded, and there seemed to be no traffic lights, which meant that the traffic was a constant free-for-all, so that it took an eternity to cross the road to get to another part of the city when i wasn’t even bothered about visiting it in the first place. we left promptly, heading for quieter, quainter, quixotic (...er) samaipata, where kids run amok in the streets, donkeys appear to have no owners, and there are blissfully few cars.

from samaipata we embarked upon a number of day-treks into the surrounding jungle. on the first day we hiked through some of bolivia’s dry forest. we made a number of ascents to numerous invariably spectacular views, mostly of the majestic sandstone cliffs, which are a stunning red due to the rich iron and copper content. we sat on the edge of one such cliff, watching the vast green wall of sound opposite, listening to all the magnificent sounds contained within.

we saw countless beautiful butterflies and gliding turkey vultures, and many large ants, which carried ambitiously large leaf-fragments in a long line to goodness-knows-where. we saw one tocandera (well, a ‘tocanderita’, apparently), which is one of the world’s largest and most powerful ants, and in numbers is strong enough to bring down a grown man.

our guide, saúl, is a fantastic man, and he never ceased to delight us with his unfailing enthusiasm at the discovery of a flower or a seed or a caterpillar – all of which are, as though by afterthought, declared rather matter-of-factly to be extremely poisonous. he also showed us a specimen of the world’s most poisonous mushroom, and the world’s oldest species of palm tree (from the triassic period – over 210 million years old).

for reasons like these, we found ourselves stopping very regularly – not that we minded. he showed us that an alarmingly high number of plants have taken measures over the ages to protect themselves from predators, such as many palm trees having huge, uninviting spikes on them, and other plants releasing strong scents if touched.

following our many ascents, we finally descended to the river, which we had to wade through no fewer than 9 times. each crossing varied in depth, current-strength, slipperiness, and general intensity.

at one point the water was above our waists and the current was very strong, so i decided that for balance i would free my hands, which were occupied with my walking boots at the time. i went to throw my boots to the other side of the river, but only one made it. my long pre-travel search for waterproof walking boots was instantly made worthless as my right boot filled up with water. still, we continued our trek barefoot for the next hour, so my boot had time to dry. sort of.

we eventually reached a huge rock - which must have been 30m2 at least – through which a narrow but very deep passage of water had channelled itself. the narrowness of the passage meant that the water current was concentrated and strong. naturally, we went for a swim. the first day finished with a magical walk amongst fireflies – a vision which at first had me thinking i’d stood up too quickly.

i enjoyed this day perhaps more than any of the inca trail because it felt a lot more adventurous, and we really were off the beaten track (because there was no track). we didn’t see anyone outside of our group of 5 for the whole day, save for a man who appeared out of nowhere at the end of the day to wash his boots by the river. the walking is also a lot easier, being at only 2300m on average, and it feels as though we’re seeing a greater variety of sights than on the inca trail.

on the second day of trekking we visited the bolivian cloud forest, and it was interesting again to see how different it was to the peruvian cloud forest that we saw on the way to machu picchu. here we’re making our own, often dubious path, up muddy banks and over precariously slippery rocks, rather than on a paved walkway used by hundreds each day.

there is life absolutely everywhere. even from fallen branches and dead trees, something finds a place to grow. with such an abundance of life comes an equally astonishing amount and variety of noise, from the incredible chirping of crickets – which sounds like someone drilling into a metal pipe – to the chatter of passing parakeets, to the discordant, sinuous tones of the cicadas. there is also a very large species of frog here, which i was sure was a groaning cow when first i heard it.

saúl’s ability to recognise seemingly identical plants never ceases to amaze me. and his disarmingly eccentric cackle that follows the announcement of an organism’s ability to kill us all instantly never ceases to charm me. he charges next to nothing for his tours, even compared to other companies in samaipata, and he provides his bilingual and scientific fountain-of-knowledge services at no extra cost – unlike his rivals – so each day we felt incredibly lucky to be having him as our guide.

our 18km walk on the third and final daytrip from samaipata was considerably longer than the 11km and 9km walks of the previous two days, and with the sweltering sun beating on us constantly, it was also considerably harder. we scaled ever more dangerous paths - navigating our way over recent landslides was particularly interesting.

we were fortunate enough to spy as many as 20 condors, and we even spotted their inaccessible nest lower down at the top of a waterfall. we also saw 2 snakes – 1 deadly – and a tarantula. we ended the day by a magnificent, cascading waterfall of some 70 metres. our drive home was amongst many bulls that were fighting in the road, with apparently no home, owner or care for passing cars.

we took a couple of days out of hiking and touring to visit sucre, which is in some elaborate way possibly still the capital of bolivia – although my memory fails me. sucre is not as pretty as it wants to be – claiming in brochures and guidebooks that it is the beautiful, whitewashed city of bolivia – but it was my favourite city in the country nonetheless. i suppose that the loose description of ‘whitewashed beauty’ has my mind conjuring images of the incomparable greek islands that i’ve visited in the past, and so to see sucre after that is unavoidably a let-down.

our bus from sucre to uyuni was thankfully a lot more straight forward than the one from samaipata to sucre. for the latter, we spent 3 hours cowering in the aisles with feet in our faces and stomachs, with a chicken next to us, all amidst the smell of rotting fruit and raw beef. we eventually complained, and it transpired that the 4 people in our seats hadn’t purchased a ticket.

for the former, sally and i both had seats, and the worst inconvenience i had to endure was a man who boarded the bus and decided to lean against my face, because there was no seat for him. a nice old lady made up for this by insistantly trying to hold a conversation with me - despite my explaining that my spanish isn’t very good and that i couldn’t understand her - and she proceeded to jab me in the arm whenever my response was lacking.

uyuni was much more pleasant than i’d heard, even if it is swarming with tourists. it’s also a lot flatter than i’d envisioned, which serves as quite an unexpectedly welcome contrast in comparison to the endless rolling hills, mountains and cliffs amongst which we have been living lately. as a rough indication to this flatness, the salar de uyuni – which is one quarter the size of switzerland – varies only 1 metre in altitude over its entire 4000m2.

victor, our driver, was a quiet argentine man, who has very few teeth and is therefore very difficult to understand - but nonetheless a spot-on chap. as a friend in samaipata put it, there seems to be a direct correlation around here between the number of a person’s teeth and the amount their conversation can be understood. unfortunately, one of our group didn’t warm to our humble driver-guide as quickly as sally and i, and there was something of an altercation over the playing of traditional bolivian music in the car. i couldn’t have been more opposed to the qualms with the music, or rather, the underlying principle of such misgivings – and alas this wasn’t the only thing we disagreed on. nonetheless, i let the scenery distract me from these minor irritations as much as i could.

gazing out upon the infinite expanse of the salt flats has been one of the most remarkable and otherworldly experiences of my life to date. it’s one of those occasions that to me is so overwhelming that i feel like i’m not quite there. still, i’m pretty sure that i was there, and i have photos to prove it.
that evening we stayed in an impressive house where the walls, floor and furnishings are all made of salt. the silence here was so deafeningly complete - the only sound more deafening that night was our roommate’s snoring.

victor’s driving made me nervous at times, but i tried to remind myself that he does this every day, and that he still seems to be alive as a result of his competent driving. we suffered 2 punctures in the same number of days, meaning we had no spare tyres left - but in his defence, there is an awfully large number of rocks on the criss-crossing gravel tracks that loosely navigate the salt flats and the remaining bolivian altiplano.

on the second day, the lord made light, and we watched it appear from over the distant mountains on the far side of the world’s largest salt pan. we passed a spewing volcano, and several lakes flooded with flamingoes. we drove ever further into the desert, stopping at one point to admire a large rock which was the shape of a tree – its base about a quarter the circumference of the top – due to the extreme strength of the winds that are channeled through the surrounding valley. as soon as we left the car, we could feel the sand being whipped painfully against our cheeks and legs.

we awoke at 4.30 on the third morning to reach the geysers in time for sunrise. although i slept infinitely better than the previous night (due to two pathetically thin pillows), i was awoken at some early hour by a black sheep-like dog who decided that he wanted to sleep in our dorm with us. and with the temperature outside at around -5 celsius (probably), i couldn’t blame him.

the starry sky was incredible, if slightly less visible than i had expected/hoped, and watching the sun rise over the desolate, lifeless, uninhabitable mass of sand and dust was really something. victor threw us over the dunes once more at his now-familiar life-threatening pace, nearly ending in disaster at one point as a huge truck emerged from behind the impenetrable wall of dust trails (created by other touring 4x4s) with only a few metres for us to swerve clear.

the white steam of the geysers looked particularly dramatic set against the black silhouette of the coarse sandy backdrop, and it smelt similarly dramatic against the backdrop of otherwise clean, high-altitude air. we visited the hotsprings shortly after (a pleasant 30c), and finished off our trip with a third rear-left puncture at the spectacular, mirror-like laguna verde – our last stop before crossing over into northern chile.

the ever-changing landscape we have passed through this past three days has at one time reminded me of a mars that i’ve never visited, and at another reminded me of the arid scenery depicted in frank herbert’s dune. it’s so unbelievably dry in places that it’s claimed that it’s never rained here (the clouds can’t pass over the andes and form cloud forests on the other side instead). there’s not so much as a drop of water to be seen, or even the thistle of stubborn cactus. it’s so dry that the mountains – some of which are nearing 6000m – have no snow on them, despite their breathtaking altitude. i’ve truly never seen anything as amazing as what i’ve seen here.

following the salar de uyuni tour, we settled for a couple of days in san pedro de atacama. this place was a lot more developed than the miniscule, wooden shack-lined, dusty street-filled settlement that i’d envisaged. there are still the dusty streets and the odd wooden shack, but there are also many flashy restaurants and cafes, and countless travel agencies. there are also absolutely huge dogs here – all of which seem homeless and angry. they appear to wind each other up continually, as there is a contstant dusty swarm of fighting dogs that makes its way across the streets and squares, swallowing up small children in its path - much like a hurricane.

on our last night in san pedro, we visited an astronomical observatory for a tour of the night sky. i was really excited about this, as i love everything and anything to do with space. unfortunately, though, we arrived at the observatory in the middle of the atacama to find that we’d neglected to adjust our watches to chilean time, and that we’d consequently missed the english tour, and were in fact present for the spanish one.

i’ve been feeling gradually more confident with my aural spanish skills since we’ve been in central and south america, but they were really put to the test on this occasion, and i could only keep up my concentration and enthusiasm for so long. i felt quite disappointed that we’d missed the english tour, because there were a lot of questions i wanted to ask, and there was a lot of input i’d have liked to give when it came to being quizzed on general astronomy. it was still a great night, though, and having a go on the many impressive telescopes was fantastic.

unsurprisingly, there was a water-shortage here, which meant that i had to press my forehead up against the bathroom tiles to get any of the shower’s intermittent dribbling on my head. the water was cool, at least, which was good enough, and i didn’t really mind about the shower situation when i consider just how amazing it is that there is even able to be a settlement in the middle of the atacama at all.

we skirted the pacific northward towards iquique, enjoying being by the sea for the first time in 5 weeks. i realise how insignificant an amount of time that sounds, but it feels like a lot longer – especially considering the increasingly high altitudes we’ve been experiencing, and the sheer dryness of our surroundings during the most recent few days. the huge cliffs that form the last reminder of the andes are looming over us now in iquique.

what an odd combination it has been to see such parched desert clashing so abruptly with the vastness of the pacific ocean, with no sign of green life inbetween. it looks like some sort of unfinished, manmade building site – and yet, somehow, it’s beautiful. i almost expect such a collision to create some sort of spectacular protest – but let me not forget that i´m no longer in bolivia.

chile’s comparative wealth to bolivia is instantly palpable, although we’ve so far only been to two towns. iquique seems the wealthier of the two - in fact, it’s a sort of toned-down miami. zebra crossings are actually adhered to here, unlike in bolivia, and the novelty of traffic screeching to a halt when you so much as look as though you’re considering crossing the road has yet to wear off. another novelty has been plugging in electric appliances, bracing oneself for spitting sparks, and finding nothing of the sort. and it’s been great to be by the sea again – although i have yet to enjoy fully the renewed joys of coastal swimming, since there are hundreds upon hundreds of jellyfish.

all in all, then – aside from watching an angry lady stab a surprisingly unphased man with a kitchen knife outside our local supermarket in broad daylight – i like it here. we’re staying for a few days, mainly because we arrived on monday and found that the first bus out of here is on sunday, but also to have a bit of an unwind both after and before a lot of long bus journeys.

i’ve just returned from my first paragliding experience, and i loved it. we were driven up to the sandy mountains that overlook iquique, where we’d be starting our flight, and after being fitted out with a thermal suit, helmet and harness, my pilot, leo, explained that we had to run off the edge of the cliff. he emphasised that we must run, not jump, and not try to sit.

after leo had preprared our chute and we’d been tugged around a bit in the wind, we were ready to go. running off the edge of a cliff face hanging 800m over the sea felt a bit odd and not entirely natural, but it was one of those situations where i felt i had to abandon all logic and intuition and just do it anyway. sure enough, as we approached the edge of the cliff, we were suddenly (yet very smoothly) swept up into the air, and we were away. it was at this moment that leo yelled out “i love my job!”. i love his job too.

it was a trifle uncomfortable at first, as i was still in a standing position and it felt as though the harness was holding me in place solely by my genetalia. this discomfort was shortlived, however, and soon thereafter i was sitting comfortably in the harness, with the wind in the small lock of hair that had managed to protrude from under the helmet, and taking a small compilation of photos which combined will eventually comprise simonmaps™.

paragliding seems largely a case of finding and utilising air currents and thermals (rising hot air) so as to perpetuate ones flight for as long as possible/desired. leo seemed particularly adept at doing this, and we managed to have 45 minutes in the air rather than the usual 20-30 minutes (although this was chiefly due to us getting stuck above a huge sand dune called ‘the dragon’, where leo had to work quite hard to get enough lift to allow us to land on the beach rather than on the large dune behind the city), which i was quite happy about.

it was interesting and revealing to see iquique from above. our aerial perspective afforded views of the outer reaches of the town in comparison to the glitzy resort-like sections along the coast. one gets the impression that there are parts of iquique that the town doesn’t want tourists to see, so they’re shoved to the back, out of site – much like a child doing a half-hearted job of tidying his bedroom.

i finished reading 1984 yesterday, which i thoroughly enjoyed. but i can’t help wondering that i should have read that book whilst in cuba, and dune whilst here.

happy new year!

our bus journey from cusco to la paz was surprisingly uneventful. i managed to sleep for the majority of it, thankfully, so the 13 hours passed quickly. the border crossing was the worst part. we basically stood in a queue in the rain for 3 hours, waiting for our passports to be stamped, which took no more than 60 seconds.

i have yet to get used to the constantly changing weather at altitude. in cusco, it's freezing in the mornings, but as soon as you go outside - as long as the sun's out - the coat and fleece that are necessary for keeping warm indoors are shed within about two minutes. it's similar in la paz.

la paz is chaotic. i've never seen so many minibuses (tiny vans with sliding doors) in such a small amount of space. the ladies who hang from the sliding doors shouting their destinations (probably) do so in such a perfectly monotone fashion that the collection of those continuous monotones builds up to some kind of marvellous - if slightly cacophonous - chord, which morphs slightly with every new arrival and departure. they have chicken buses here, which are more or less identical in appearance and sonority to those in guatemala, save for the fact that they are half the length. they aren't half the volume - although they don't seem to use their ferry-like foghorns quite so gratuitously.

there is also a vast number of police officers. i'd read that there is a police officer on every corner in cuba, but that was an exaggeration. and while that's still not the case in la paz, i've seen packs of officers wandering around together, all seemingly in slightly different regalia, which causes me to question whether there's some sort of police league or something.

it was great to see will and ellen, and to stay in one place for more than a couple of days. we visited the 'moon valley' - a curious formation of sandy rocks which somehow hasn't collapsed yet, and the zoo, in which most of the animals seemed either to be depressed or to have gone mad. indeed, as sally pointed out, most of the big cats retraced their exact same steps, such that they had made quite visible paw marks in the ground.

we spent christmas day the only way a christmas day should be spent. that is, eating lots of food and watching lots of films. one passer-by proclaimed, "come on - it's christmas!", but i´m not sure what more he wanted from us. we WERE doing christmas, after all. we rounded up with a hearty monopoly game, and i learnt that if you're hard-up for cash, you should go to jail.

the day after will and ellen left was pretty much a write-off, since i spent much of the early hours becoming intimately acquainted with the toilet and (thankfully) nearby basin. i´m not sure what has been the cause, but it´s been a long time since i´ve felt as utterly drained as i do now. my first meal in about 36 hours was a banana, followed a bit later by some chips. the 50-hour mark saw another half-banana, half a bowl of pasta and some pringles. still, sally is taking very good care of me.

there have been countrywide riots taking place in bolivia over the last few days, due to evo morales' (president) decision to rise petrol prices by 73% overnight. at first i heard that this was in direct response to some bolivians smuggling petrol to neighbouring countries, where petrol is considerably more expensive, and where a hefty profit can therefore by made. i've since learnt, however, that the government had been subsidising petrol for the last decade, meaning that petrol prices are unusually low for the area - but that the price was set to change around now (10 years later).

either way, there is a large gap between rich and poor here, and the vast majority are understandably furious at this price-increase, because they simply can't afford it. our bus to cochabamba, for example, took 3 hours just to get out of la paz due to a toll gate at the outskirts of town being completely blocked off by thousands of banner-wielding and firework-throwing protesters. the military-like riot police, replete with helmets, shields and nasty-looking guns, seemed to be doing something along the lines of retaliating, and we had to try a couple of other routes before being able to leave the city. watching the news the next day, we would see this same toll gate up in flames.

we'd decided to stay in la paz for a couple of days after will and ellen left, mainly due to these riots and roadblocks. but i was happy to wait it out a bit as it also meant that my stomach had a bit of time to recover, and i didn't much fancy the idea of another 8-hour bus journey to cochabamba while i was waiting to feel better. i still felt rough when it came time to leave la paz - having eaten wholly insufficient amount in as many as 50 hours - and a couple of hours into the journey i felt as though i'd slipped into the seventh circle of hell... or something equally melodramatic. we'd paid about a third the cost of our bus from lima to cusco for this bus, so the posh seats and televisions were replaced with smelly old ladies and a driver who would stop so that he could buy food, but not so that we could go to the toilet. eventually an older local demanded that i was allowed off the bus, because he knew that i needed a jimmy. the same bus driver refused to draw the curtain at the front of the bus because the passengers in the two front seats hadn't paid for the 'panoramic view' - yet they weren't allowed to pay for it when confronted with this response.

although the scenery en route to cochabamba was impressive in places, most of the settlements were decidedly hole-like. from memory, my analysis of this area will have been fairly unforgiving due to my being on the brink of vomiting for more or less the entire journey - so i will most likely revise my review of rural bolivia in the coming days/weeks that sally and i sally forth between the larger bolivian townships - health permitting.

cochabamba is fairly disorderly like la paz, if slightly toned-down. at roughly 1000m lower than la paz, and being noticeably flatter, it's also decidedly more navigable, and that periodical urge to take a huge gasp is gradually dying down, much to my gratitude. there are also far fewer people, and i feel as though i can actually walk places and think things without being pushed past or bumped into.

despite its size, though, there isn't a great deal to do here, and the riots haven't helped that. sally and i were walking back to our hideout for the next few days and stumbled across an advancing band of what must have been hundreds of locals, carrying more banners and flags and chanting something or other. three ladies who were standing in a shop entrance to one side of us advised that we would do well to go the other way because - as my spanish interpretation skills have it - of our colour. although, that may have been wrong. either way, we circled about and took a hurried re-route home, experiencing along the way an unpleasant sting in the nostrils and the back of the throat that we later deduced must have been tear gas. we later saw on the news the amount of tear gas dispersed by the police, in retaliation to the fairly impressive violence from the protesters. i would enjoy the opportunity to ask locals how they feel about this situation.

one thing cochabamba does seem to have a curiously large number of is hair salons. i would like an explanation for this - such as cochabambinos' hair groes at thrice the rate of other bolivians - but i have yet to receive one. another thing that this place has a few of is large cafe/diner places. we've been to two such diners, with their brightly coloured interiors and extensive menus. they sell a huge array of icecreams and cakes, each of ridiculous colours, which look unbelievably sickly but nonetheless curiously delicious. this illusion was swiftly shattered upon the actual tasting of the colourful foods - although they do make a good omlette, even if it is way too much for one man.

another large procession of protesters was advancing along avenida heroinas (more or less where we're staying) as we were eating breakfast in 'dumbo', one of the aforementioned large diners. the protesters turned their attention to the restaurant, and promptly starting shouting and throwing fruit as they passed. the dumbo staff quickly pulled down the shutters, and soon enough, we were nibbling on our over-sized omlettes in the midst of a lock-in.

my most recent update was scribbled hurridly at the base of the the world's largest statue of jesus:

"sally and i are currently huddled beneath the cristo de la concordia statue atop a large hill in the east of cochabamba. with his arms outstretched in typical statuesque fashion, christ himself looks as though it is he himself who commands this decidedly large thunderstorm from which we are hiding. the 30 or so lookout holes that scale this great white statue are currently lending themselves as the counterparts of a giant wind orchestra which, coupled with the thunder, are creating a particularly dramatic, constant rumble. the iron gate behind which we are hiding is offering little shelter, and the floor just inside the doorway is now covered with water. we're wearing tshirts, shorts and flip flops, so we're ill-equipped for the mad dash we're about to make!"

we were promptly soaked. thankfully, the cable car to and from the statue opened up again even though 4pm had passed, and we were taken back down to the city. after taking a taxi home, during which time we saw the water rise over the pavements (apparently it hasn't rained here like this in years), we decided that we would stay in for new years so as to avoid the danger of any further violent protesting. we don't know anyone here anyway - we've seen maybe 5 other travellers since arriving. we later saw on a count-down-to-new-year show that morales lifted the price increase at 10pm.

it seems, then, that both the national fuel crisis and my health have resumed to normality in time for the new year. following an 'aspirations for 2011' conference over a putrid coffee this morning, sally and i both appear to have come to the conclusion that we are interested in furthering our education come the time of our return to england.

and with that, i bid thee all a happy 2011!

camino inca

the rest of our time in miraflores was spent finding some shoes for sally in the out-of-place shopping centre, and perusing the aísles of the huge supermarket to the tune of jingle bells for panpipes. we didn't do much else here, as miraflores turned out to be a fairly mundane place. our hostel was nice, however, though incredibly quiet. sally and i had an 8-bed dorm to ourselves.

we took a bus from lima to cusco the next day. it was halfway through these 22-hours spent in one seat that i would suddenly appreciate how much i´d underestimated altitude sickness, as i was awoken with the sudden need to run to the coach's bathroom and throw up. i was later consoled to find out that there was little i could have done to prevent such a reaction, since altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of health. this consolation was shortlived, however, and replaced with the overriding feeling that i was still on a bus for the rest of the day. the change from sea level to 3300m above seemed to have taken its toll.

i began to feel better over the next 4 days that we'd designated for acclimatising in cusco prior to the inca trail, but i still found myself running out of breath after an enthusiastic bout of laughter, and the fact that i tend to speak very quickly in very long sentences didn´t help either. regardless of this, i greatly enjoyed looking around cusco - one of my favourite places on this trip to date - and was glad to be spending so long here.

we took a couple of days out of our do-absolutely-nothing-so-as-to-acclimatise-effectively schedule to visit the nearby sacred valley and some of its ancient ruins. probably the most interesting of the 4 archaeological sites we visited was that of moray. moray comprises a series of concentrically circular terraces that descend some 30 metres into the ground. the difference between the top and bottom levels is said to be around 15 degrees celsius, due to the whole design working as a 'suntrap' of sorts, sheltering the lower levels from the cooler wind and thereby trapping in the sun's warmth. it was raining when we visited, however, so the only phenomenon we were able to experience was that of a reduced breeze.

the other two sites we visited - ollantaytambo (still haven't cracked the pronunciation of that one yet) and chincerro - were both at fantastic cliff-edge/hilltop settings, and both displayed textbook examples of incan stonelaying, where stones of vast measurements and often numerous dimensions are fitted together with truly remarkable precision (less than a hairline crack between them) and with no use of mortar, unlike in the rather less impressive spanish efforts that were to follow.

these two days of visiting inca sites served as a nice introduction to the inca trail itself, which we began the next day. i kept some notes over the ensuing 4 days:

day 1
"we walked 12km today, starting at 9.40am at a bridge over the surging rio urubamba. we walked until about 4.30pm, ascending from 2600m to 3300m in the process. i feel that allowing 4 days to acclimatise has been a huge help, but the steep inclines of much of the pass coupled with the altitude still leave me gasping for air and clutching my knees.

tomorrow, by comparison, will be much harder, and is generally considered to be the most difficult day of the trek, with an ascent through two passes of 4200m and 3900m respectively.

we have a good group with us - australians all - and our guides (andy, martin and luis) are great. the porters are otherworldly, carrying impossibly huge packs of 25kg, containing our tents and food, all at a jogging pace. i feel comparatively pathetic.

the food is excellent, especially so considering it´s made in tents by the same porters who lug our stuff up the trail at double our pace. they cook us breakfast in the morning, and then pack everything away whilst we set off. they then overtake us at some point during the morning, and we meet them at the campsite with our lunch ready and waiting. i am truly in awe of them.

my last point of note before i go to bed (i was up packing till 12.30 last night, and we were up at 5.30 this morning, so i´m suitably shattered and happy to be going to bed at 9pm) is that we have to call out 'porter, porter!' to the group to let everyone know that porters are about to pass. i've never heard my name said so much in one day."

day 2
"today has been right up there with the most physically demanding days of my life. we were woken at 5.30am by the porters, who brought coca tea to our tents. we had breakfast at 6 (porridge, an orange, biscuits and tea, and a pancake with papaya and pineapple) and were on our way to dead woman's pass by 6.30am.

we ascended through cloud forest - so-called due to cloud getting trapped up against the mountains and engulfing everything in cold humidity, resulting in a huge and very complete covering of moss. it´s like nothing i´ve ever seen before.

we carried on, ever upward, up what would be normal steps at sea level, but what are monumentally epic climbs at this altitude. i can´t decide whether it´s more tough on the knees or the lungs. after about 30 seconds of climbing, i´m breathing more heavily than i ever have before.

we finally reached the day´s first summit at 4215m, and were greatly pleased to hear that we´d done it in half the usual tourist time. i was slightly disheartened to hear that the record time for the entire inca trail is 4 hours and 22 minutes, but i´m still happy with our progress.

the downhill section felt more like my domain, and i soon found myself jogging ahead of the pack into profound silence, spoilt only by my undeft footsteps and heavy breathing. it´s probably worse for my joints, but it feels a lot easier to let my legs pedal naturally rather than exhaust my muscles by trying to go at a steady pace. i also much prefer to bt the pace-setter, rather than bringing up the rear. i think doing the latter for the first ascent today contributed to my struggle this morning.

our lunch was a huge mass of pasta, mashed potato, lasagne and vegetables. i ate way too much and felt very heavy for much of the afternoon.

our second ascent and descent felt easier, passing through a mere 3900m, and by 4.30pm we were at our next campsite. the scenerey is absolutely stunning here when the clouds pass for long enough enough to be able to see it. the sunset this evening was cast over snowy peaks.

we´ve all turned in for the night now, and i´m writing in my journal huddled in my fake north face sleeping bag next to a sleeping sally, amidst the brilliant flashes and unabated rumbles (the last one measured 56 seconds by my count) of a circling thunderstorm. it´s cold - about -4c -but i feel cosy here protected from the noisy storm.

tomorrow should be a shorter and therefore easier day compared to today´s 9 hours of hiking. looking forward to seeing our quarry on tuesday!"

day 3
"today has gone so quickly that i wonder if it´s actualy happened yet. perhaps i´ll unzip the tent door tomorrow morning to find that we´re still at this morning´s campsite. most likely not, though, and i´ll find at 3.20am - tomorrow´s start time - that we´re at our 3rd and final site, nestled neatly against the mountain edge at winyawayna, overlooking the orange rio urubamba way below, ourselves being overloked by an inexhaustible number of magnificent peaks.

i was a little disappointed to find that the site here has a big restaurant and a bar with proper showers. it doesn´t seem to fit in here, and i find it irritating to think that people can´t wait just one more day before returning to the luxuries of hot water, cold beer and toilet bowls.

nonetheless, machu picchu is less than 6km away, just around the corner from us (literally - one mountain), and i´m excited to think that we´ll be seeing tomorrow what has been so tantalisingly out of reach this past 3 days.

today´s progress was mostly downhill, which i enjoyed. we passed through a lot more cloud forest, and saw some incredibly colourful birds and caterpillars. still no condors yet, though.

tonight´s bout of thunder has just commenced, and it´s already 9.40pm, so i´d better retire if i´m to have any hope of rising before the sun tomorrow. ah, yes - it´s the summer solstice tomorrow, which fits in quite nicely with us aiming to reach machu picchu in time to watch the sun rise over it. buenas noches!"

we'd been abnormally fortunate with the weather for the previous 3 days of trekking, considering it´s wet season. despite the fast-moving clouds that would in a matter of minutes engulf that which had only moments before been a spectacular snow-capped skyline, it had only rained during lunch - when we were in tents - or when we'd gone to bed. not unlike clockwork, in fact. on the morning of our 4th and final day, however, we awoke in the midst of a fairly full-on thunderstorm.

humanity was apparently thrown to the wind (and rain), as everyone hurried down to the gate that would allow us access to the the last 6km of hiking, and machu picchu beyond. it was amazing how prepared people were to push, shove and cut their way to the front of the queue, but our (although perhaps not my) patience was rewarded, as somehow andy and luis managed to get us through the gate before nearly everyone in the queue ahead of us. i'm not entirely sure how they managed it, but it was a good feeling.

the last 6km was probably the most intense stretch of the whole inca trail - not necessarily the most difficult, but definitely the fastest-paced. rather than purely uphill or down, this part was neverending peaks and troughs. had we gone much faster, we would have been running. we passed gasping men and fresh landslides - stopping only once for a jimmy - over undulating slopes, and finally up 'the gringo killer' - a series of 50 impossibly steep steps - which actually proved to be an anti-climax, perhaps due to the andrenaline we´d built up with our determined pace. the rain by now had stopped, and as we finished our ascent up the last of the steep steps, we stumbled upon the sun gate - the first point at which one can view machu picchu from a distance, weather permitting. despite the looming clouds and saddening absence of sunlight on the summer solstice, we had a perfect view of that which we'd been seeking for the past 4 days.

as if the previous 42km of trekking hadn't been enough, drew (a rip-snorter of an australian bloke) and i (me) decided to climb wayna picchu, which looms ominously over machu picchu like some sort of crumbling precipice. this meant another 2 hours of climbing that was possibly yet more difficult than the rest of the inca trail. the slippery steps were, in places, as wide as one foot, and so steep that one had to use all four limbs to ascend without risk of falling off one of the sheer drops to one side.

added to this was the problem of traffic - vast loads of tourists who arrive at machu picchu on the day BY BUS! the fact that only 400 people per day are allowed to climb wayna picchu, coupled with the fact that the buses arrive at machu picchu way earlier than the trekkers - those who have spent the past 4 days dedicated purely to reaching that site - ever could, bothered me greatly. i understand that not everyone is in a position to be embarking on a 4-day trek at altitude, but i say that if you're fit and healthy, and have bothered spending enough money to get to peru in the first place, then do the trek!

nonetheless, andy clearly understood how important it was to us to have the opportunity to climb wayna picchu, as we were the first non-bus-travellers to reach the ruins that morning. in fact, andy said that overall, out of his 10 years of being a guide on the inca trail, we were the second fastest group to complete it (the fastest was a group of professional runners - there's always one).

drew and i imagined the amazing view we would have had of machu picchu had it not been covered in cloud, and even glimpsed the odd stone in the distance as the clouds cleared a minute amount. we sat at the top of wayna picchu for half an hour or so, before reluctantly beginning our undignified descent on all-fours plus bottom. we finished the day at nearby aguas calientes - so-named for its thermal baths - and greeted warm water for the first time in days.

we spent our last day in cusco with a well-earned lie-in, a bit of mundane-but-necessary admin work, followed by an amazing dinner in a british pub with our fellow inca-trailers. sally and i had both been saying that we didn't really see the appeal of going to a british-themed establishment when travelling the world specifically to experience foreign cultures. but one taste of the pie and mash at this place instantly changed all that. we celebrated further with a big game of monopoly, in which time i discovered that communism has no part in such a board game.

it's becoming increasingly more difficult to update this journal with any regularity, so i've taken to collecting my thoughts by hand and then backdating typed-up entries at such a time when a good internet connection is available.


i don´t think peru could seem more different to cuba, or more different to what i´d imagine lima to be full-stop. the first two things that i notice are that there are adverts absolutely everywhere - on every building, car, window, post, person - and there is a huge amount of traffic.

after being delayed by 2 and a half hours in costa rica (enough time in which to buy a new camera, since mine perished in varadero), we were finally greeted by eduardo´s 'SALLY KITHENER' sign held aloft at juan chavez airport (the novelty of having our names on signs in this way is sadly wearing off more quickly than anticipated), and before (or, in fact, precisely when) we knew it, we found ourselves in a slow but constantly-moving sea of cars and minibuses, leaving next to no room for error, with horns blaring all the while.

the third thing i´ve noticed is that this part of lima - miraflores - is much for built-up and developed than i´d imagined. were it not for the odd drab cafe or beaten-up old car here and there, i´d think i was in a western european city.

the fourth and perhaps most refreshing realisation is that, in the 5 hours we´ve been here, we haven´t been pestered once. no offers for a taxi, no intimidating stares, no sleazy men, no begging for a peso, and no offers of 'real cuban cigars' at good price for you. i feel bad for not enjoying cuba as much as i´d hoped, but however grateful i am for the eye-opening experience, i was ready to leave. so ready, and yet so unprepared mentally for peru.

with admittedly little thought prior to arriving here, i´d thought of peru as being something of a step back in our trip in terms of there being a similar indigenous rural highland culture, which i´d already experienced in guatemala - not that i wasn´t willing to disprove this loose assumption to myself.

and already, here i am, realising that this part of peru is so much that guatemala is not, and that lima is on the coast and not at an elevation of some few thousands of feet (i´d apparently been paying more attention to cusco and arequipa in my limited preparatory readings), and that the feeling of the place is entirely different to what i´d anticipated.

on top of that, they have yellow cola here, which i intend to sample the moment i put down this pen.

lasting impressions of cuba

cayo levisa was incredible – probably the best beach i’ve ever been to. it’s a 3km-long island of perfect, white sandy beach and the clearest turquoise sea – just like something out of a travel brochure. part of me couldn’t help but think about how unauthentic and removed from the real cuba this place was. but after the previous day’s events, we were only too happy to escape the often harsh realities of true cuban life for a few hours, and bask in the magnificence of our surroundings.

there were only around 50 people on the island, and we joined a handful of those for a snorkelling trip about an hour after arriving. we were taken out to the edge of a coral reef, where the water was about 9 metres deep, and with the underwater visibility said to be around 30m, we could easily see the sea bed from our boat.

we weren’t really told anything about snorkelling or the sorts of marine life that we might encounter, so i took the liberty of naming my findings for myself. i saw several blue-faced wobblers, and swam amongst many a shoal of yellow-finned bottom-dwellers, as though i were one of them (although i’m not sure they were convinced). i also saw a trumpet fish – and apparently that’s its real name, though i don’t care for it much.

we returned to the island for what i thought was a rather inappropriate seafood lunch, and spent the rest of the day exploring. sally and i ventured off to a completely secluded spot, where we saw many a hermit crab and starfish, followed a bit later by an old man. the water was like a tepid bath.

once back in havana, we enjoyed our first ride in a classic american car which, upon my eager but basic spanish inquiry, turned out to be some 55 years old. i find it truly fascinating that these people have been able to keep these cars running for so long. our old beast was taking us from the centre of havana to the bus station, and in that time, 4 other passengers came and went. it didn´t feel ordinary, but it definitely felt like the right way to travel.

our casa this time was opposite the imposing habana libre hotel. this huge and not particularly attractive building had originally been the havana hilton for its first few months, but at the turn of the revolution its upper floors were seized for use as castro’s headquarters, where he would begin to shape cuba into the country that it is today. now the top floor is a disco.

all of the tall structures in habana – and there aren’t that many – seem to have in common the enormous turkey vultures that circle regularly about their summits. they seem to launch themselves periodically from the tops of the skyscrapers simply to hover in the wind, with only the occasional beating of their wings to keep them aloft.

we walked along the malecon, a 5km road that skirts the havana’s sea front, and witnessed the humongous waves that crash regularly into the banks by the road. during a later walk along the same esplanade, we would find no less than two dead birds, a dead rat, and a pair of lungs washed up on the pavement. we also found the charred carcus of a dog, another dead dog in a bag on the side of the pavement, and a dead chicken on a wall.

it was on this day that sally’s friend hannah was due to join us for the next 10 days. whilst sitting on the steps outside our casa, waiting both for alejandro to deliver bertha (a conga i hired for our 2 weeks in cuba, for practising in between lessons) and for hannah to arrive from the airport, a young man and his friend in their early 20s came over to us and sat next to us on the steps outside our casa. one of the men immediately launched into an over-friendly spiel – with which we would become increasingly familiar over the next couple of weeks – asking where we’re from and then explaining that he knew people from there. after a couple of minutes, the transparency of his ploy became clear, and he started to explain that he – who was dressed better than we were – desperately needed money for his family to be able to eat. unfortunately, it was to be exchanges like this that would make us cynical about befriending people in cuba for the rest of our visit. the men stayed with us for about 15 minutes in all - alejandro having been and gone, with a lengthy explanation of the importance of looking after bertha fitting in nicely in the mean time.

over the coming days we three amigos ventured eastward across cuba as far as trinidad, via matanzas – a seemingly authentic and non-touristy town, in which i felt absolutely awful for just about the whole day due to renewed stomach ailments - and varadero, which is more or less the antithesis of matanzas. i feel that my view of the former was blighted somewhat during our stay due to said discomfort and the resulting day-long remedies of plain bread and water with sugar and salt, but suffice to say it was a lot less touristy than havana and viñales, and also a fair bit cheaper. nonetheless, the only remarkable thing about matanzas that sticks in my mind is that it had 17 bridges, and an absolutely massive train – with a man asleep on the front by the headlights, of course – which was very nearly the loudest thing i´ve heard in my life. the only louder thing was a harrier jump jet at farnborough air show.

it became noticeable just how little we had been pestered in matanzas within about 5 minutes of arriving at varadero. in the time it took us to find a hotel, we must have been asked if we wanted a taxi or a horse-and-cart ride a dozen times, and my vulnerability to such assaults was only worsened by the fact that i now had bertha – who is a heavy sun of a gun – to lug around. in fact, she weighed 15kg – the same as my bag – so i had 30kg to carry in total, making me a sluggish target.

varadero struck me as another unauthentic piece of cuba – one which has clearly been sanitised to meet the needs of the package-holidayer. the thin strip of land that is varadero is lined with numerous resorts, posh restaurants and boutiques, and generally things that you’d never see in a place like matanzas. the beach, however, was unbelievable – nearly on a par with cayo levisa. we honoured the beach with an impenetrable sand castle, built upon a lofty motte, reinforced with byzantine palisades and shell buttresses, protecting a large keep which was overlooked by a sentinel watchtower and skirted by, of course, a moat. it was ransacked by arabs in 1637.

we had a great time in trinidad, mainly due to what was our favourite casa in cuba, run by a lovely man named javier. the food there was amazing (apart from the curious cuban dessert of papaya jam and unpleasantly mature cheese), each night including a soup, a main course (usually some sort of sea food), the ubiquitous jam and cheese for dessert, coffee, and then – the best bit – cigars.

javier delighted in introducing me to a new cigar each night, and i delighted in letting him. i tried a monte cristo no.4, a romeo and juliette and a trinidad – the latter of which was insanely big. prior to trying a cuban cigar, i have to admit that i’d thought that the comparison between a cuban cigar and a cigar from elsewhere was one of those overhyped things like sampling a 63-year-old glenfiddich compared to a 2010 jack daniels. i thought that there’d be practically no noticeable difference to me, and that anyone else claiming otherwise was being deliberately pretentious. how wrong i was.

we were never short of activities around trinidad. we visited topes de collantes - a huge waterfall – and swam in its large and beautiful (if very cold) plunge pool. we visited playa ancon, the local beach, which was nice but not even in the same league as cayo levisa or varadero. we also went to a nightclub in a huge cave, which was excellent. i may have had one too many mojitos/havana libres that night – much to my regret the next day – so alas that night was about as intelligible to me as cuban spanish.

trinidad struck me as very similar to antigua, from a visual point of view. it has the same grid of cobbled streets with pretty spanish colonial houses and churches, and i had equally little an idea of my bearings here as i did in antigua, due to all of the streets looking so similar. appearances, though, was where the similarities stopped.

trinidad seemed a lot less touristy than antigua, which was good, but there were many more people in trinidad who bothered us. one man, for example, wanted to take us to havana in his taxi. he said he could do the trip in half the time that the coach would take, for half the price. when we mentioned this to javier, we were told that jiniteros make promises like this all the time, but that they always result in disappointment. the drivers rarely own cars, and have to rent them (meaning that they´re not real taxi drivers, and therefore illegal in cuba), and the common outcome is that the driver will stop mid-journey and demand considerably more money before taking passengers any further. this particular man bothered us every day that we were in trinidad, and said that he would be waiting outside our casa every morning until we went with him. he wasn´t lying, either.

my next two lessons with alejandro back in cuba were great. firstly, he picked me up from our new casa in his motorbike and sidecar, and whizzed us across havana to his house, which has a view of the josé martí memorial tower in the nearby plaza de la revolucion. secondly, he was hugely impressed with my progress on the congas, which made me very pleased, since i had been worried that my practising hadn´t been sufficient. thirdly, we went on to learn cuban rhythms for drum kit.

one exercise he had for me was that of coordination. he got me to play 4 different written rhythms at once – one for each hand and each foot – whilst counting ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ in semiquavers aloud, so as to help underline on which part of each beat each combination of limbs´ rhythmic components coincide. i had to do all of this whilst listening to and taking in what alejandro was telling me about the importance of coordination in percussion – responding where appropriate in between counting aloud. the idea is that by listening to someone talk whilst coordinating all 4 limbs and mouth, the brain is forced to increase its capacity to perform. my brain hurt after 2 hours of this, but it did work.

i met up with alejandro twice more outside those two lessons – once to watch his band play at the ridiculously grandiose media habana hotel (his band were amazing – the sort of thing i always seek out in london, but rarely find), and then for a farewell dinner at ‘las nardos’ with he, his partner, sally and myself. the food there was amazing, but in unebelievably extravagant portions – the sort of size that puts you off eating full stop. the evening was nevertheless a pleasant one, until it transpired that alejandro hadn´t been joking when he said ‘you pay!’ during my lesson earlier that day.

this incident, when isolated, doesn´t matter to me much. alejandro put a lot of work into making sure i got as much out of my 3 lessons as was humanly possible, and i´m incredibly grateful for that. but when grouped with everything else that has happened in my time here, i can only see it as a microcosm of how it is to be an outsider in cuba - and that is to be an inexhaustible wad of cash.

during my time here i´ve been reading, amongst many things, about che´s proposed communist way of life, based on that of ´the new man´ - a moral man who works not for financial or material incentive, but for the good of his fellow cuban. my mind has been returning repeatedly to this concept as i´ve wandered the streets of havana and trinidad and viñales, and it makes me wonder what che would think of cuba and his revolution if he were to see the same cuba that i´m seeing now.

the problem i see with communism in cuba is that it is surrounded by as much capitalism as it is caribbean sea and atlantic ocean. and with the palpable invasion of money-wielding tourists that descend upon cuba and its inhabitants each day, it’s little wonder that some may see an opportunity to gain a bit more money in a country where it is otherwise frustratingly impossible to have any more of anything than anyone else. because however beautiful che´s idea of a non-capital-driven population is – and despite he himself having been that way – that is not how the vast majority of people are.

had castro and guevarra´s intended grander scheme of a south american socialist revolution been successful, it would only be a bit of water that separated cuba from the rest of the world, and tourism might not have been the pastime only of the wealthy capitalist. but given that cuba is one of the last communist outposts in the western hemisphere today, tourism can only really exist in the form of wealthy foreigners wandering amongst poor locals - the former of whom being perhaps inevitably exploited, the latter of whom being perhaps understandably envious.

cuba, as a communist state, is supposed to be a country in which every person is equal - but i´ve seen for myself that it is not so. if equality is at the very core of the way of life in cuba, how can it be fair for those with more than the equals to be allowed to co-exist in the same place? having spent two and a half weeks here, i feel that capitalist tourism in a communist country such as cuba is wrong. i think it´s wrong that one can visit a country in which it is forbidden for the natives to accumulate wealth and travel abroad, yet outsiders from the capitalist world who are infinitely more free are allowed to visit on a whim, splashing out limitless cash on cigars that the cubans make but can´t themselves even afford to buy.

tourism has changed the national psyche - there is a new and seemingly inexhaustible source of money coming in every day in the form of tourists, which is constantly being wafted under the nose of the locals, and it´s understandable that temptation arises as a result of this. i was so disappointed when i found that i had been robbed - more out of the principle of taking what´s not yours than due to the actual amount of money - but when i think about the incident in terms of the amount of money i have and the multiple possibilities open to me to earn money outside of cuba (hopefully), and compare that to the circumstances of our hosts, it´s plain to see why taking an extra 50 cuc - which is double the national average income per month - would be so tempting.

cuba has been a real eye-opener for me, probably due to it being the most eagerly anticipated country on our itinerary, and therefore the country for which i had the most preconceptions. it has been a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard work, and i think it´s caused me to ponder both my and other people´s way of day-to-day life a lot more than i thought it would. i leave cuba feeling a bit disappointed, a bit sad, and a bit empty – but most of all fascinated. i feel as though cuba has left something of an indelible mark upon me - one which, i´m sure, will cause me to return, however eventually, even if only to see out of curiosity to what extent such a unique and isolated country could change.

first impressions of cuba

how different cuba is to guatemala! for one, it´s very warm, even at night - i guess that´s the difference of being back at sea level. people are a lot less timid here. where guatemalans will only open up to you once you’ve established some sort of loose rapport, cubans clearly have no apprehensions and jump right in – literally, in one instance. they´re also very difficult to understand. i´d read that cuban spanish had a distinctive ´caribbean lilt´ to it, but i´d say it´s more an indecipherable - yet by no means unenthusiastic - slur.

we saw the effects of the us embargo-induced timewarp as soon as we arrived at havana airport, which i don´t doubt hasn´t changed in the slightest since it was built in 1930. it certainly wasn´t as clean or as shiny as guatemala city airport. during our inbound flight, we´d been issued a series of forms asking us to declare any health issue. as if to drill home the importance of this, we then had to pass a series of ladies in white lab coats, each more brilliant than the last, who checked our forms at the customs desks after we´d collected our bags.

we went through the gates and were fully exposed to what i suspect will plague us throughout our whole time in this country – that is, blatant stares, catcalling, offers of taxis, et al. we settled for a quieter but no less firm man who had a very old and creaky lada - from the soviet days, i´m guessing. after assuming that the traffic was light due to the late hour of our arrival (around 11pm), we soon realised, as our surroundings became increasingly built-up, that there really aren´t many cars in cuba. this was later confirmed by a fact i read that states that, compared to 850 out of every 1000 americans, only 28 out of 1000 cubans own vehicles. there are many huge 4-lane (each way) motorways in havana that one can drive along without seeing another car for a couple of minutes - even in the middle of the day. it’s as though cuba was preparing for a massive influx of car-owning people who never quite arrived.

once in habana vieja, our driver pulled over to get directions, asking numerous locals who seemed to be sitting on the sides of the streets with apparently nothing to do. the last person we asked was an old man who got in the car with us and rode along for the next few blocks until we were heading in the right direction. a few minutes later, he got out of the car and casually walked off into the night to carry on with whatever it was he was doing (if anything).

we were warmly greeted by our host, barbara, as she showed us into her wonderfully labyrinthine home with opulent pillars and crazily high ceilings – but with noticeably few furnishings. barbara’s home doubles up as one of many casas particulares (or ‘private houses’) in cuba. there’s no network of cheap youth hostels here, and the hotels are all state-run and very package-holiday-y, and therefore comparatively expensive. the only authentic and economical alternative, then, in my opinion, is these casas. they’re a great idea, i think, because you get to know some lovely people in their own homes, and see how cubans really live.

the next morning was something of an awkward affair, as sally and i deliberated at length (in a no doubt very british manner) as to whether or not to enter the kitchen, from which we could hear (but not see) the sounds of busy pottering about. by the time we’d eventually decided to enter the kitchen, the source of the rummaging had gone, but there was a table in one corner, laid with lots of bread and fruit that i hadn’t seen before. unsure as to whether this was for us or someone else, we hovered awkwardly for while (in a no doubt very british manner), until barbara and friend carlos materialised beside us, ushering us to our seats almost forcefully.

our first casa meal ensued, amidst incredulous and excited whispers of ‘SHE’S DIPPING HER BREAD IN THE YOLK!’ from our closely-watching hosts. in fairness, sally's bread-in-yolk-dipping is amongst the finest i've seen at home and in cuba. the unidentified fruits turned out to be papaya (referred to as ‘fruta bomba’ here, as ‘papaya’ is used for something else) and guava. the guava is best described as tasting like there’s a party in my mouth to which no one is invited.

after breakfast was my first lesson with alejandro. it is at this point that i suspect that i may not have mentioned him in this journal heretofore. but to cut a long story short: i wanted to keep music in mind whilst travelling, so, in addition to the percussion-teaching at la cambalacha, i arranged to have some percussion lessons with a cuban percussionist named alejandro mayor, whom i was put in touch with through a friend.

my first lesson was on congas, and i soon realised just how little i knew about cuban percussion. the techniques for just making a sound with the drum in the first place are so much more complicated than anything i’ve had to learn in a very long time – but i am enjoying the challenge. for example, to play a bass note (one of four basic sounds on the conga), one must strike near the middle of the drum with the palm and not the fingers, at a 30-degree (ish) angle, letting the palm – which is always flexed straight - fall to the drum naturally but with conviction, with arms relaxed, but without the elbow sticking out, and with the entire motion coming more or less from the wrist.

i wonder if alejandro had thought i was lying when i said that i have quite a few years experience as a percussionist, since i really came across as a novice in my first lesson with him. but i would be quick to point out that i have never studied anything like cuban percussion before, and that it’s therefore a whole new (and exciting) world to me – which is the point of learning it!

the main difference is that the striking force either comes solely from the wrist or fingers, depending on the sound, whereas with djembe you can hit the drum more or less whatever way works for you best. similarly, when playing with sticks, one needs the wrists to be relaxed rather than tensed, which means i’m using an entirely different set of muscles to play now. i’m finding that playing congas is a very precise art – one in which there’s apparently very little room for error.

alejandro himself is brilliant. as a teacher, he has an astonishing attention to detail and, though strict, he’s incredibly animated and quick to give praise where it’ due. at the end of the lesson, for instance, he exclaimed that we had made a guinness world record that day, since i had apparently picked up the basics quicker than anyone he’d taught in his previous 10 years of teaching. this was quite nice to hear, considering he’d started the lesson by saying ‘i have bad news: your level is very elementary’.

you know where you stand with alejandro, whether it’s through his amusing interjections of encouragement such as ‘that’s right’ and ‘that’s the point!’ when i’m getting something right, or the way his face suddenly lights up and he opens his arms as if to say ‘of course!’ when i play something right for the first time. he also refers to my brain as a ‘he’, explaining that my brain ‘needs to keep picking up information – he needs to eat the information in the right order’.

after our first morning in habana, we decided that we would stay an extra night, partly because my lesson overran, and partly because we just didn´t fancy the mad rush to the bus station on the other side of the city. we´re in viñales at the moment, having a coffee outside a cafe after a huge and quite unexpected rainstorm. we really like it here, but today and perhaps our entire stay in this most tranquil and anachronistic of towns will most likely be marred by this morning´s events.

we arrived in viñales after a 3-hour westward journey aboard a bus that was so modern and comfortable that, since it would appear we’re stuck in the late 1950s, it seemed to be some marvellous machine from the future. the overpowering air conditioning only exaggerated the 30-degree heat when we left the bus, and we were immediately engulfed by a sea of casa owners who were shouting at us to stay with them, and ignoring us when we said we already had accommodation arranged. we were rescued by a bobbing sign which, as it floated towards us atop a fresh tide of oncoming jineteros (those looking to sell accommodation, cigars, taxi rides, bus trips - most of which are bogus - to tourists), came into focus to read ´SALLY + SIMON´. we hauled our curiously heavier bags (i didn´t really buy anything in guatemala) onto our backs and followed the sign-bearing lady through the parochial town to our would-be casa for the next 3 days.

viñales is a fairly small and remote town made up of little more than 3 parallel streets set on a grid, located in a valley beneath stunning mogotes (limestone cliffs) that rise suddenly from sea level to some 450 metres or so. like la habana, the town is stuck in something of a timewarp, with pre-1959 american classics and slightly younger (but no less beaten-up) soviet ladas cruising the streets amid the more rurally ubiquitous modes of transport - the horse and cart, and the old faithful pushbike. this place seems to have an endearing system of sharing lifts - cars are always full, there are always two people on a pushbike, carts and pick-up trucks are always packed, and we even saw a man riding on his bike hanging on to the doorframe of a speeding lada. with this in mind, it can become plain to see why cuba is the only country in the world to have perhaps unintentionally stayed within its national carbon footprint quota.

if guatemala time is slow and at its own pace, cuba time virtually stands still. the townspeople are friendly enough on the most part and, as ever in cuba, seemingly forever occupied with a long sitting session and a good chat/stare into space. this most important of activities commonly takes place on one of the many porches of the charming wooden houses that line just about every street in viñales. there are by default two rocking chairs on each porch, replete with pensive/vacant old man/lady, who more often than not will wave to you if you catch their eye (we seem to catch a lot of people´s eyes).

our first day here consisted of some essential admin work, including online banking, followed by real-world banking. accessing the internet here is no mean feat, and at 5GBP for an hour´s use, it´s also very expensive. it took us about half an hour (seriously) to find the one solitary internet café in town, due to receiving contradictory directions from every single person we asked. the internet cafe consisted of 3 ultra-slow computers, one of which was broken, the other two of which were unsurprisingly occupied for the first half-hour or so after our arrival. to log on to the internet in cuba, one has to submit one´s casa/hotel address and passport number, after which a unique username and password is issued on a scratchcard, rather like topping up a mobile phone back in 1997. by the time we had found the internet cafe, queued and then finally transferred some funds (took about an hour and a half in all), the other, more tangible bank across the road had closed - and there are no ATMs in viñales.

with worryingly modest quantities of hard cash to last until the next day, we walked a couple of kilometres out of town to la ermita, a posh package-holiday-eque hotel, and sat in their pool over looking valle de viñales and its sentinel-like mogotes. we ate at the casa that evening, and the food was amazing - and way too much for the two of us to eat. this casa was very pretty and, unlike our two casas in la habana, had the treat of a window. we went out that night to the casa de la musica, one of the few bars in viñales, and watched an amazing salsa band and some scantily-clad dancers. i experienced renewed frustration at my still rather lacking spanish speaking skills.

this morning we went on a short tour around the valley, stopping at a large cave, some huge mogotes cliff faces that had been painted, and a tiny roadside fruit stall, where the fruitmaster named alberto stuffed us with pineapple, bananas, coconut, net pineapples (a local aphrodisiac, apparently), and a drink made in half a hollowed-out lime, with pineapple, papaya and mango juice and honey. we visited another package-holiday hotel with an even better view over the valley, and i sat on a huge ox, called something in spanish which translates to ´the bitch´ (but she was lovely). i bought my first montecristo no.4, and a nice little cedar box in which to keep it. i´ll save it for when i next close a business deal or something like that.

it was when we returned to our casa this afternoon after a great morning that the day soured. i found that my personal effects had been rifled through, and that 50 cuc (cuban convertible pesos - amounts to about the same in GBP) was missing. we tried our best not to assume the worst, but as we mulled it over, accounting for everything we´d spent that morning since taking money out at the bank, we became increasingly certain that a not insignificant amount of money had been taken. the most conclusive proof of this was in the form of the bank receipt i had obtained that morning, which clearly states the amount withdrawn and the contributing denominations.

i wanted to confront our hosts, even though i didn´t expect to see the money again. but sally, who would have had the unenviable task of doing the confronting (they don´t speak english), wasn´t so keen. we agreed to pack our bags and find a new casa, intending to come back for our bags later and then explain that we had money missing and therefore had to stay at a cheaper place as a result of our loss - hoping that this indirect, implied accusation might stir enough guilt in our hosts to prompt them to return our much-needed funds, or at least make them realise that we knew what was going on. because after all, 50 cuc would pay for another two nights in this place, and about 15 nights in a similar place in guatemala, and we´re really not in the position to be letting that sort of money go so easily. however, our new host advised us against confrontation, despite her visible disgust at the situation, and we decided that we would just leave our money and depart quietly instead.

today, then, wasn´t quite the 2-year anniversay that sally and i had been hoping for. still, it´s only been marginally worse than our 1-year anniversary, in which the corsa back in london was towed from outside sally´s flat in clapham, where sally lived, all the way to millwall, for the grand sum of 250GBP. it took us about 4 hours to get back, which completely wrote off the day´s plans. perhaps we shouldn´t celebrate our 3-year anniversary...

tomorrow we´re going on a day-trip to cayo levisa, which is an uninhabited island to cuba´s north, and is only reachable by boat. i will report back presently on whether that turns out to be as good as it sounds – although with internet access being as awkward as it is, i may be a while.